Personal Monuments

September 9, 2013

Text and Illustrations by John Pobojewski.


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Eyeglasses, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. © Courtesy of the author.

2012 was the most significant year of my life. In May, I lost my father to a sudden heart attack, and in December, my daughter was born. It was without question the most overwhelmingly emotional time I have ever had to navigate, alternating between tremendous sorrow and great joy.

In the chaos, I found myself looking at objects that had suddenly become very precious to me. Dad’s old t-shirt he had given me many years ago that I still wear. My daughter’s little hat that they put on her the instant she was born. These objects seem to guide me as to where I had been and where I was supposed to go. They had became sacred overnight—monuments to the moment when my childhood officially ended, and the next chapter of my life began.

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Detail of Civil War Monument, Peekskill, New York. © Miranda Schlitt.

We all seem to cling to our past. We erect monuments of bronze and marble to commemorate specific dates in history. We teach our children about them. We ask each other, “What were you doing when…?” We remind ourselves that these shared moments teach us important lessons about the realities of life in our age. But, more often than not, the personal moments in our lives touch us more than any shared tragedy or celebration ever could. These moments become our turning points when we are challenged with looking at life differently than we had before.

Our personal moments have monuments too. While the material won’t last for generations, the objects are no less valuable. They are precious to us because they are a reminder of our individual experience, of the chapters in the book that we write for ourselves.

The Undesigned Memento

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Porcelain Cat, eBay. © Courtesy of the author.

Consider for a moment the tchotchke—an item designed specifically for the idea of preserving a memory. These objects often reek of commerce, are usually purchased on a whim, and are forgotten just as quickly. The price is low, and the quality is not far behind.

As designers we talk about how important it is for our work to be keepsake quality. We dream that what we do will stand the test of time. But keepsake quality and a true keepsake are two very different things. A keepsake has a deep association with a significant memory—that is its power.

It is incredibly difficult to design a memory, much less an object to represent that memory. Most just end up trying too hard.

A Citizens’ Temple for Objects of Importance

We need a place where we can come together to celebrate our own memories and be touched by the memories of others. We need a place where people from all walks of life can share their keepsakes.

Amongst all the junk that we accumulate, there are real memories of real importance. This fact should not be ignored. There are times we can learn from these personal monuments in ways that could bring us together, ways that bring us to common ground, ways to teach each other of the real human emotions that lie beyond our differences.

Perhaps by creating a place of respect and reflection, we can amplify the power of these items.

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Citizens’ Temple for Objects of Importance. © John Pobojewski.

An Open Place that Preserves
The Memories of All Within
A Destination for Families and Friends, Young and Old

The Infrastructure of Shrines

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Shrine at W Grand Avenue and N Artesian Avenue, Chicago, 23 May 2013. © John Pobojewski.

A daily experience of city life is passing by a humble shrine, often made up of cardboard, photographs, flowers, and small objects. No doubt this was a site of significance—a traffic accident, a gang shooting, a life lost. Here, an entire installation of personal effects is cobbled together to honor those who passed as an offering of remembrance.

These shrines are always so deeply personal and yet so public—whole neighborhoods pass by without a fleeting thought. And then, with a certain cold efficiency, the city swallows the shrine overnight. Next year the installation may return, only to have the process repeated.

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The Infrastructure of Shrines. © John Pobojewski.

Here We Remember Those
Who Lost Their Lives
In Ways Both Untimely and Unfortunate
Please Be Respectful

Perhaps a simple and modest system could be developed that allows the city to maintain her streets while still respecting these real life monuments. Then we could begin to acknowledge these gestures of the surrounding community as honest design worthy of preservation. Real love goes into these shrines—why not give them a more permanent space within the urban fabric?

A Million Shared Souls

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Wedding rings taken from inmates, near the Buchenwald concentration camp. Germany, 5 May 1945. © Courtesy for the author.

In 1945, as American solders liberated different Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe, they were struck by the number of personal effects of the executed Jewish people that were left behind—entire crates filled with gold wedding bands, piles of suitcases, rooms full of eyeglasses. The scale of this unspeakable horror suddenly becomes very personal when we look in the mirror at our own pair of glasses or down at our hands to our own wedding bands.

When a familiar object is seen outside of our everyday lives, it transports us into a situation we might not otherwise even imagine. We see ourselves in these objects, and in turn feel a deep connection to individuals we’ve never met. Multiply this gesture over and over, and the power of this connection grows. Perhaps it can help us cross great divides, learn from one another, and better understand each other.

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Marriage Park. © John Pobojewski.

A Place to Commemorate the Livelong Commitment of Love
Between Any Two Peoples
Of Any Race, Creed, Mean, or Orientation.

Our personal memories define us as evidence of who we have become. And our keepsakes are monuments to these memories that we visit every day. They remind us of where we’ve been. They allow us to grieve and to cope. They help us see ourselves in others.

While the discipline of design encourages us to re-imagine a brighter future, we cannot forget our individual pasts. There is real power in our own personal narrative, and the treasures we keep help tell these stories. If we can bring them together and create spaces that acknowledge their value, perhaps we can come together.

And when we come together, we are bound to one another, and therefore we are united.