This year, I saw two Independence Day-themed exhibits, of which it would be easy to categorize one as real and one as not, except that, technically, both are “real.” Or maybe one is just as much a figment of meaning-projection as the other. I can’t decide.
The first display was at the New York Public Library, which was showing an original draft of the Declaration of Independence, as written by Thomas Jefferson, along with one of the original 14 copies of the proposed Bill of Rights. Both these documents are extremely rare, and the Library has never exhibited them together before. Because they're so fragile, they were on display for only three days, July 1–3.
I went to see them after work on Tuesday, when the library was open late, and stood in line for 45 minutes, which was totally worth it. It’s hard to write about the experience without sounding like a Frank Capra film. The crowd was large and diverse, and noticeably respectful. Even standing in line, everybody was polite and patient, which is something I don’t recall ever experiencing in an NYC queue before. The crowd fanned out once we were admitted to the room where the documents were in three displays: Jefferson's two-sheet (front and back) Declaration, sandwiched in glass inside two separate vitrines, so you could read all four pages; and the large, printed Bill of Rights (one of only 14 original copies known to exist) laid on a slanted backing inside another, much larger display case. Even though people were allowed to crowd around the displays at will, there was no bad behavior that I saw: Everyone waited patiently for their turn and looked as long as they liked.
Over at the Bill of Rights, there was a polite discussion among strangers about why there were 12 Articles instead of ten. (Our Second Amendment was the document’s Article Four.) If I described everything I saw among the crowd, I don’t think you’d believe me. I know I wouldn’t believe it if you’d been there and told it to me: It was pretty sappy. “Unreal” was the word that came to mind, several times.
Then, on Saturday, I went to look at The Moving Wall™ because it was installed down the street from where I live, and I thought it would be like going to look at the wreckage of a bad car crash. The Moving Wall is a half-size scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC—the dark, sobering wall of inscribed names set mostly below ground level, designed in 1981 by then-architecture student Maya Lin. The Moving Wall is a series of separate panels being trucked around the country and set up in county parks and on village Little League fields, completely out of context and almost 40 years after the end of the war.
When I was growing up in Iowa, the Westroads shopping center in Omaha was one of the stopping places on a tour of a three-quarters-scale, cast-stone replica of Michelangelo’s Pieta. One Saturday, my little sister and I drove the 30 miles out to West Omaha to see it, and also because we needed to buy some new jeans. The Westroads management had installed the Pieta in a room off the mezzanine, near the restrooms, and had decorated the space to look something like an airport chapel. The walls were covered with long, navy blue drapes, and a few rows of pew-like benches were set up facing the artwork, which was set on a concrete pedestal and brightly lit by one spotlight that cast weird shadows all over it. Classical music played softly through a speaker behind the Pieta, and although the songs weren’t any of the hymns we knew from Presbyterian church, it was clear that they were supposed to sound churchy. Cherla and I walked in and sat down towards the back, since the only other people in the room—a boy in a varsity jacket from some Omaha high school and a crying girl—were sitting in one of the pews at the front. It seemed like they were breaking up, and had probably come in here expecting some privacy, but the Pieta’s appearance was being announced hourly on the Westroads radio ads, so I was surprised there weren’t more people in there. After a couple of minutes, we got up and left. “That was ridiculous,” my sister said, and I agreed with her.
The cast-stone Pieta was my only prior experience with scaled-down replica art, so my expectations for The Moving Wall™ were quite low. I imagined hinged plywood panels arrayed like some giant room divider in our little hick village, but it wasn’t like that. The walkway that climbs the hill to the baseball field was flanked by signs advising visitors that The Moving Wall™ is a memorial and is to be treated respectfully: No food, no smoking, no pets. No gum. Someone had added a big piece of tape with “NO DRINKS” written on it in Sharpie marker. When I reached the top of the hill, I could see the Wall across the field. It was some kind of shiny black material—plastic, I think; you aren’t allowed to touch it—and the panels were shaped in an attempt to recall the sloping effect of the real memorial, without the bother of digging a trench. There were attendants, who offered to help me find a name and make a rubbing of it, if I wanted. There were a couple of tents, and a canopy with members of the local VFW post sitting in folding chairs. The thing that surprised me was that there were flowers and photos and notes and even copies of the rubbings of names laid at intervals along the length of it. This replica memorial was a real memorial to some people.
It turns out the Moving Wall is not even the only replica Viet Nam War Memorial that’s being trucked around the country. There’s the Traveling Wall, the Wall that Heals, The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, and the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall, as well as a few stationery replicas, like the one in Wildwood, NJ. And I can sort of see how, if you’re not ever going to be able to get to Washington, DC, you might want to see some kind of commemoration of your loved one, who died in the war that was so reviled that it took years for a memorial to be designed and built, the memorial itself being controversial at first, and then it took many years more for this replica acknowledgement of the war to be noncontroversial enough to show up on a little town’s ball field, now that the people who survived that war are all, like, 60 or 70 years old. And at least it doesn’t look like someone’s tacky garden ornament, a la the cast-stone Pieta. The Moving Wall isn’t real to me, but it’s not for me: It’s for the people who left the flowers.