Collection Talk: untitled photograph of the Lincoln Memorial, ca.1960s [Video]

Throughout 2022-23, a series of talks consider works from The Block’s collection that reckon with the history of slavery, white supremacy, symbols of nationhood, and social inequity. This online talk was held in connection with 2022–23 One Book One Northwestern (OBON) selection How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith.

This discussion led by Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Coordinator for Collections Information and Digital Interpretation, focuses on an untitled vernacular photograph of the Lincoln Memorial, ca.1960s, and considers the histories and complexities of the monument in popular imagination.

Built in 1922, one hundred years ago, the Lincoln Memorial is prominently situated on one end of the National Mall and is a popular destination for visitors to Washington, D.C. Larger than life, the sculpture honors the 16th president of the United States, who in 1863 issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Through the classical structure, imposing sculpture, and the accompanying text, visitors are meant to recognize Lincoln’s achievements as the preserver of the union at the end of the Civil War and to honor his role in ending slavery.

In this personal snapshot circa 1960, a pair of women stand in heels and dresses next to a large sculpture of a seated Abraham Lincoln.  The photo’s blurriness obscures their facial expressions, but the directions of their gazes remain clear – one glances up toward the monument, and the other looks toward the camera, acknowledging that the scene is being photographed. The photographer may be someone familiar to the women, or perhaps a complete stranger.

At three by five-and-a-half inches, the photo itself is smaller than a postcard and was not taken with the intention of gallery exhibition or being critically examined. But it offers insights into the way that historical figures are memorialized through monuments like the Lincoln Memorial and how visits to such monuments are preserved in photographs. The human figures here are contrasted by the larger-than-life scale of the monument, a compliment to the ground-level, intimate scale of the photograph.

“As a country, the US did not come up with a coherent or collective strategy for coming to terms with the fact that its foundations have roots in slavery. A symptom of this is the lack of a national memorial or monument to people who were enslaved or even the end of slavery. In that absence, perhaps we look for other spaces, such as the Lincoln Memorial to transform and collectively acknowledge these histories through larger events but also in forging cultural connections through individual acts.”

Melanie Garcia Sympson, Curatorial Coordinator for Collections Information

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