A Space Between Public and Private
America is in reverse when it comes to commemorating important events in history. Although government and private groups continue to invest millions of dollars in the creation of civic monuments, increasingly their designs are meant to invoke the personal (think of the empty chairs of the Oklahoma City bombing memorial) and not only the patriotic, philanthropic, or historic.

At the same time, observes English professor Deborah Mix, average citizens are giving greater voice to their individual joys and sorrows in the form of vernacular memorials, the iconic image of which has become the roadside cross. But which, particularly in our contemporary moment, also appear in a range of gestures, from Facebook and other web pages to car decals, quilts, scrapbooks, and tattoos.

During fall 2011, Mix and a team of 14 immersive learning students from the university's Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry look to add to the small but growing body of research into how we communicate in a space between the public—New York City's official monument to the victims of 9/11, and the personal—a widow's album of photographs, to participate in what sociologists term the "public sphere" and help shape public discourse.

"The Vietnam Memorial in Washington seems to be the watershed," says Mix, who will lead the team to the nation's capital during the fourth week of the project to better understand the ways official sites and objects such as the National Mall and Arlington Cemetery create a particular kind of cultural history. "Within days of the memorial's opening (in 1982), the Park Service had begun collecting hundreds, thousands of items left by veterans, family members and others who felt compelled to make these personal additions to the official monument.

"Why? What are the impulses behind the creation of vernacular memorials and what do their creators hope to achieve? What does it mean to me, a stranger, who doesn't 'know' and what does it mean to someone who does know? Those are our guiding questions."

Also intriguing Kathleen Coffin, '12, about the project was the opportunity to take some family history and "put it to good use."

Though herself from St. Louis, Coffin explains most of her extended family hails from east central Indiana, including her 96-year-old grandfather. Since arriving at Ball State as a freshman, Coffin says, "every Saturday, in the wee hours of the morning, I've driven long county roads and joined him for breakfast. Afterward, he sometimes would lead me around Delaware County, pointing out various places, cemeteries, even graveyards dating back to the Civil War, and telling me how they came to be or filling me in with little anecdotes about these places. It was always fascinating.

"The opportunity to learn so much on my own about this beautiful area … and immortalize it in our own studies was a thrilling prospect."

Daily Reminders

Studies suggest vernacular memorials trace to a Latino origin, says Mix, though descansos or "places of rest" have existed—most often in the form of roadside shrines—almost since the first paved thoroughfares were built by the ancients Greeks and Romans, thereby increasing the possibility of someone achieving a fatal accident-allowing speed.

In America and more broadly, the idea dates at least as far back as the funeral train procession for Abraham Lincoln in 1865. As the coach carrying the assassinated president's body passed through the many cities and towns along the route from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, storekeepers and homeowners had created makeshift memorials in Lincoln's honor, using portraits and busts of the president, posters and banners featuring quotations and excerpts from his speeches as well as sections of already published eulogies.

The displays marked ordinary Americans' desire to participate in a national event, Mix explains, to take a public occasion and make it personal. Whereas a century and a half later, vernacular memorials most often seek to take a personal event and make it public.

"It's a reversal of the national-to-local trajectory of the Lincoln displays," she says. "Our goal as a group is to collect examples of vernacular memorials from a section of Middle America, to theorize on and interpret local efforts to commemorate as a way of understanding and preserving those daily reminders of people and events."

Resource for Research

In doing so, the students will collaborate with local members of the community as the sources of the memorials themselves and their context. Mix and the group want to produce a public exhibition and catalog that will become part of the archives of the Muncie Public Library and Delaware County Historical Society, available to local residents and scholars including those continuing work on the landmark Middletown Studies project.

Mix hopes the research is helpful, as well, to communities across the country where the subject of vernacular memorials often is controversial. Twenty-nine states have laws addressing them—from allowable number, size and shape to outright prohibitions—particularly those within a public right-of-way.

"These are examples of freedom of expression that cross a lot of borders," says Mix. "There are ethical issues and political issues and lots of other complicating motivations. We're curious to get at that."