Chaos, remembrance, healing and hope

PORTFOLIO

Oklahoma City's new memorial raises questions about the role such venues play.

March 04, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

Those who visit the recently opened Oklahoma National Memorial Center are asked to step back in time - to April 19, 1995, a date made infamous by a terrorist's bomb.

Called a "learning center" by its designers, the building combines elements of a museum, a memorial and a library. In it, the story of what happened that day unfolds in 10 "chapters," or galleries that focus on the moments just after the blast, the efforts of those who raced to the rescue, those who died and those who didn't.

The memorial center is the second part of an $18 million effort to remember the 168 people who died in the blast and to protest the senselessness of the violence that killed them. Part One - the Oklahoma City National Memorial - opened last year on the anniversary of the explosion.

The two components, though built separately, were designed to be experienced as one: In essence, the year-old memorial provides the symbolism; the learning center, the details.

Together, they form a powerful reminder of the 168 victims. They also raise compelling questions about memorials and the role they play in our society: What are we seeking to accomplish when we build a memorial? How do we wish to remember our past?

The memorial was designed by the Butzer Design Partnership, of Cambridge, Mass., and was chosen by a committee of 350 survivors, members of the victims' families, rescuers and experts. When planning for the memorial began just two years after the tragedy occurred, some cultural historians voiced concern. Most memorials are not built for years after the event they commemorate has ended; our interpretations of events change over time. If the process is sped up, they asked, what happens to perspective?

"In Oklahoma, the urge to memorialize began within hours. What does this mean?" says Edward Linenthal, whose book "The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory," will be published next fall. "In the 21st century, when the pace of society seems to be faster than ever, is this a fear of forgetfulness?"

The focal point of the Oklahoma City National Memorial is a field lined with empty stone-and-glass chairs, each an eloquent reminder of those who died. There is also a reflecting pool; a tree that survived the bombing and remains as a living symbol of hope; an orchard, planted in honor of the rescuers; and a children's area in which youngsters can express through drawing and writing their reactions to the tragedy.

Nearby, at the learning center, visitors are offered a blend of emotion and fact. One chapter, titled "Chaos," features artifacts salvaged after the blast: a clock, a pencil sharpener, a file drawer. A second includes a tape recording of the actual explosion. Still another includes photographs of those who died and a personal item - a little girl's party shoes, a favorite recipe, a photo - chosen by each victim's family as a remembrance. "It's so you get a sense of these people as more than just a number," says Hardy Watkins, project manager.

Detail by detail, the exhibits tell the events of that day and its aftermath through oral histories, artifacts and footage from television news reports. "It tells the story of the first minutes of the day after the explosion. The first hours, the first days, the first months, the first five years," Watkins says. Computer stations and archives offer visitors access to even more in-depth information about terrorism and its roots.

The last "chapter" is titled "Hope." In this area, the exhibit focuses on the community's efforts to rebuild and to heal. A thin veil of water streams down a wall, forming a type of sculpture and a symbolic link to the reflecting pool outside. "We try to point out that though the event was a very evil act, the response shows that there was much more good in the world than bad," says Watkins.

To Linenthal, who also has written a book about the Holocaust Museum, the Oklahoma City memorial and learning center, with its blend of characteristics, represents a new kind of memorial.

"I call it an activist memorial environment," he says. "It isn't just a memorial. It isn't just a museum. It isn't just an archive. It is all those things."

Linenthal haunted the Oklahoma City site over the past five years, poring over archives and gathering 150 oral histories from survivors, family members and rescue workers. The scholar says the new kind of hybrid memorial exists not just to commemorate the tragedy, but also to convert. "They have a living pedagogical purpose. They are there to educate and to enrich so that people will emerge more civic-minded."

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