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Memorials Matter: The Impressions History Leaves Behind


Let’s travel back to a day that will always be part of our national memory - May 10, 1869. It was a dream come true: a railroad connecting the East and West coasts. The horns and bells of the Jupiter and No. 119 locomotives bellowed as they chugged along the rickety tracks and came face-to-face at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. The crowd waited in anticipation for the last spike to be driven into the railroad tie, symbolizing completion of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Cheers filled the air as the maul hit the golden spike.

Credit Jennifer Ladino
Jennifer Ladino is writing a book called Memorials Matter, which focuses on the emotions people experience at sites of national memory.

What emotions are evoked today, when we visit historic places like Golden Spike National Historic Site and hear the stories of those who lived before us? How do we perceive that piece of our history? That’s what Jennifer Ladino, a former park ranger and current English professor at the University of Idaho, set out to explore.

I worked as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park for 13 years,” she said. "During that time, I became really fascinated with the tourist experience. I am interested in how people feel things when they visit sites of national memory and want to understand what happens emotionally in visitors.”

Ladino is investigating eight different National Park Service managed sites across the American West, including Golden Spike and Manzanar National Historic Sites. She is currently writing a book about her experiences.

The title of my book is Memorials Matter. There are two meanings to that. First, the significance or importance of national memorials. They matter in ways that are politically and socially important. And second, the physical matter of the sites: the environments, the structures, even the objects that influence the process of remembering, which I am saying is an emotional process in addition to a cognitive process,” she said.

Ladino experienced one of her most poignant emotional experiences at Manzanar National Historic Site located in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada. Manzanar was one of ten internment camps that the American government put in place during World War II.

Standing at the former baseball field location, there is a national park display titled, “Play Ball,” and a historic photo of some the incarcerated Japanese Americans playing baseball, which of course is one of our national pastimes and very tied to national identity," she said. "If you’re standing there on the ball fields today and look up, you see a reconstructed guard tower over you very close by. The connotations of that are all about violence and guns. The contrast between the guard tower and the baseball field is really powerful.”

Ladino noted that the way we experience these sites is very personal and often shaped by the physical environment. There might be a sense of pride or patriotism in the case of Golden Spike or a sense of shame as in the case of Manzanar.

“How we remember history matters a lot today. If we leave these sites feeling a sense of pride and unity in the country that could have an impact on politics of today. It matters for how we see ourselves as Americans going forward," she said.

Ladino’s book, Memorials Matter: Affect and Environment at American Memory Sites, will be completed in 2017.