In 1980 a senior female undergraduate Maya Lin, a Yale architecture student designed the memorial and it was entered in the enormous juried competition that was conducted to select a work to be built as the national memorial in Washington to the veterans of the Vietnam War. In a written statement of intention she states:
These names, seemingly infinite in number, carry the sense of overwhelming numbers, while unifying those individuals into a whole. Brought to a sharp awareness of such a loss it is up to each individual to resolve or come to terms with this loss. For death is in the end a private matter, and the area contained within this memorial is meant for private reckoning.
I had an impulse to cut open the earth . . . an initial violence that would heal. The grass would grow back but the cut would remain. It was as if the black-grown earth were polished and made an interface between the sunny world and the quiet dark world beyond, that we can’t enter . . . I chose black granite to make the surface reflective and peaceful. The angle was formed solely in relation to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument to create a unity between the past and the present.
Step One: observation
The memorial is a path that cuts into the earth, beginning as a thin wedge and extending to an overwhelming wall of black granite at which point it changes directions creating an angle which slopes upwards out of the earth.—The entire surface of the black granite is covered with the names of the veterans who died in the war, the names are listed chronologically when you follow the path you witness the beginning of the war, its escalation and its end.—The memorial is strategically located extending to both the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.—Along the path it is common to find momentos, photographs, and flowers left each day by friends and family who continue to grieve the loss of their loved ones.—Having walked along the wall viewers are presented with a second Vietnam Memorial. It is a group of soldiers cast in bronze. The soldiers are frozen in battle.—One soldier is wounded another is scared while two others have their guns in a ready position.—The figures are realistic and depict appropriate facial expressions, clothes and weapons.
Step Two: drawings
Submit three drawings of the memorials to scale and a map indicating its placement in relation to the other memorials.
Step Three content
The Vietnam war is a dark part of our nation’s history. It is the only war we have lost and to this day we are not able to justify our nation’s involvement in this conflict. This memorial is a conscious reminder of the scar that exists in our nations psyche
Step Four: symbolism
Maya Lin’s statement of intent is a key to understanding the symbolism of this memorial. The most important aspect of this memorial is the way in which Maya Lin takes each viewer through a journey of reflection. It is experiential.
Step Five; context-audience
When experiencing the memorial each individual is first aware of their own presence among the names of the dead. They become aware of others who are also witnessing the memorial while behind them is the image of the trees and sky. It is similar to looking into a pool of water and one can see the sky above and the rocks below the water, however it is difficult to focus on both simultaneously. In the Vietnam Memorial your attention is divided equally. Ones focus is directed to the names of the victims or to those who are witnessing the memorial, and grieving the human life lost in war. Maya Lin states, “Later, when I visited, I searched out the name or a friend’s father. I touched it and I cried. I was another visitor and I was reacting to it as I designed it.”
For the purpose of making this Curriculum Unit accessible to other teachers it will be structured into sections organized chronologically in a semester long Visual Arts block at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. This course will meet twice a week for a duration of two hours each period (see attached course schedule). While this unit is designed to be used at Co-op High School the sections can be modified for a standard class period. Art history as well as studio projects are combined in different sections placing a greater emphasis on academic studies in the beginning of the semester.
Establishing an open dialogue with students is critical and important for the course to succeed. Classroom discussions, slide lectures, field trips to specific memorials in New Haven, design projects and group critiques of student work all emphasize an interactive approach to teaching in which students are encouraged to express themselves.