monument v. memorial

What is the difference between a monument and a memorial? A monument can be a memorial and a memorial can be a monument. Or can they? Take for example the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, on opposite ends of the reflecting pool in Washington, DC. Why is one a monument and the other a memorial? Each is in commemoration of a past president, each is a popular tourist destination, and each can be considered a visually-impressive work of formal art/architecture in its own right.

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The Washington Monument is a monument to (in commemoration of) George Washington, 1st President of the United States. Washington is not represented via figural form. Instead his monument is an impressive stone obelisk.

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The Lincoln Memorial is a memorial to (in memory of) Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Inside is a larger than life-sized marble statue of a seated Lincoln, by the sculptor Daniel Chester French.

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And then there’s the Reflecting Pool, which is technically part of the Lincoln Memorial, but whatever. Positioned between the two and reflecting both structures, it feels more neutral, favoring neither one nor the other. It might seem odd to add value judgments (better, more successful, prettier) to monuments/memorials, but let’s be honest … people visit them because they’re tourist attractions, not to remember the contributions of Washington or Lincoln. You could talk about the memorial aspect of the Washington Monument or the monumental aspect of the Lincoln Memorial, but they’re not called the Washington Memorial and Lincoln Monument simply because those aren’t their names.

The way I always learned it, a monument is an architectural element and a memorial is a memory signifier. So while they may be the same actual object, whether you call that object a monument or memorial depends on what function of that object you’re describing or which takes precedence – the presence of form and physical architecture or the presence of history and transcendent memory. Is that clear? Hm … hope so.

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