The Interpreter

The JFK memorial and the woes of “interpretive centers.’

The JFK Memorial in Dallas

In the wake of 9/11, with all its discussions of memorials, I found myself wanting to revisit another memorial of a violent event that also tore the social fabric of this country. The John F. Kennedy Memorial in Dallas is one block east of Dealey Plaza, where the 1963 assassination took place. The design, by Philip Johnson, is simple, an open-air room formed by massive concrete walls that appear to float above the ground. Within, a granite slab bears the name of the president. It is all, sad to say, poorly done. Painted precast concrete is hardly a noble material, and the blank surfaces are relieved by rows of roundels that make the walls look like mammoth Lego blocks. The shiny granite slab is black, but being square and low it looks more like a coffee table than a funerary marker. Kennedy was not a notable patron of architecture, but he deserved better than this.

The Kennedy Memorial in Dallas marks a particular place where an event took place—as opposed to the British JFK Memorial, say, which honors only the memory of the slain president, albeit in a prominent location: Runnymede, the site of the Magna Carta covenant. Marking places and remembering people and events are the traditional roles of memorials, but there is another function, increasingly common today: interpretation. Interpretive centers not only commemorate but also remind (in case we’ve forgotten) and explain (in case we’ve got the story wrong). It used to be enough to bow one’s head and mourn. Now we must be educated, too. Education is a fine thing, but all this predigested information invariably overwhelms the experience of seeing the thing itself.

The Texas School Book Depository building

Dallas’ interpretive center is called the Sixth Floor Museum. It is located in the Texas School Book Depository building, from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president. The infamous depository is a surprisingly handsome structure in a simplified Romanesque style, with giant pilasters and heavy brick arches. The museum, which occupies an entire floor, contains artifacts, displays, photographs, and films recounting the events that led up to and followed that fateful day. A large scale model, originally built by the FBI for the Warren Commission, depicts the depository building, the presidential cavalcade on the highway ramp, and the grassy knoll.

The museum takes its name from its location, the floor in the building where Oswald made his sniper’s nest. (The window is on the extreme right of the front façade pictured here, beside the arch.) In a corner, behind a glass wall, a stack of cardboard boxes—behind which he hid—and a half-opened window re-create the scene. But this is not a facsimile, not a Madame Tussauds pastiche, this is the place. Curiously, the day I was there, although the museum was packed with visitors, mostly schoolchildren, Oswald’s chilling corner attracted little attention; the sightseers were all gathered around the video monitors.

Dealey Plaza today

We have become a culture more attuned to simulation than reality. Perhaps that’s why the actual spot where Kennedy was assassinated is not commemorated at all. When I walked down the sidewalk next to the on-ramp below Dealey Plaza, I found a generic National Historic Landmark plaque that didn’t even mention the president and a worn painted mark on the roadway, that might—or might not—have been significant. Of course, it would be undignified to have cars driving over a memorial, but one feels that this is a case where a traffic diversion would not have been out of place. This is what happens with the World War I Cenotaph in London, which bisects the busy streams of cars along Whitehall. In Dallas, nothing memorializes the eventful spot. What a shame.