This Place is not a Place of Honor
and the National Garden of American Heroes
Image: Landscape of Thorns, view 1 (Concept by Michael Brill and art by Safdar Abidi)Source: Sandia National Laboratories ReportOn
By Marian April Glebes
Marian April Glebes is is an emerging conceptual and mixed media artist. She received her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in 2004 and her Masters of Fine Art from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2009. Having taught at MICA since 2012 as part-time faculty in the General Fine Arts Department while working in community and economic development since 2008, Glebes is currently pursuing a Master of City and Planning at the Weitzman School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania.
On July 5th, 2020, Former President Donald Trump proposed a “National Garden of American Heroes” in response to growing calls from activists for removal and for control of confederate monuments to slavery, genocide, and inequity. Many, including myself, argue these statues are like toxic waste or relics of another era that had polluted our public space for too long. Instead of eliminating these monuments of hate, Trump’s proposal catered to his conservative base, calling for federal action to collect these discarded objects in one place thereby more efficiently celebrating the dark and nationalistic American legacy of white supremacy and colonialism. The 2021 executive order proclaimed, “The National Garden will be built to reflect the awesome splendor of our country’s timeless exceptionalism.”  The order was widely derided by professionals working in museum studies, public art, history, architecture, and the humanities. Their disdain was widely reflected across both traditional and social media.
[ 1] Executive Branch, and Trump Donald, Executive Order on Building the National Garden of American Heroes (2021).
At the time of Trump’s proclamation and continuing today, I find that the horror lurking behind the idea of creating this National Garden of American Heroes recalls a 1993 proposal for a counter-monument to nuclear, radioactive waste: the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) is the U.S.’s only deep geologic long-lived repository for transuranic waste. Buried a third of a mile below the desert, the waste will remain toxic for over 10,000 years, creating a need for a warning system that could be understood across that massive span of time. In 1991 the Department of Energy commissioned Sandia National Laboratories, who shared their task with a team of six: an anthropologist, an architect, a materials scientist, an astronomer, a linguist, and an archeologist. Together they created ‘An Architecture of Peril’, a monument to deter future intrusion at the waste site. This deterrence was intended to extend beyond the human future and into the geologic future of deep time. This group proposed an explicitly menacing landscape, using the language of built form to communicate danger where linguistic communication may eventually fail.
The National Garden of American Heroes belongs in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, where we can concentrate the monuments to our country’s legacy of waste and hate in one place. By organizing our collective toxicity under the purview of the curatorial and professional experience of historic preservationists, we might expand the field’s and the public’s discourse on the purpose of heritage sites associated with collective trauma. We may also expand discourse on what happens when we concentrate a manifestation of this trauma in one place for future generations to unpack, or to avoid. We might take two ludicrous proposals and turn them into something productive. In this multifaceted toxic cultural landscape, our messages to the future are simultaneously those of remembrance and of intentional forgetting.
Our 19th century bronzes of de-saddled confederate heroes, along with the broken marble of Columbus, could be mixed amidst similarly menacing earthworks, a landscape of thorns, and plaques that signal to future generations – and future civilizations – as posited by the WIPP proposal:
“This place is not a place of honor …”
“This place is a message…and part of a system of messages…pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor...no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here…nothing valued is here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. …. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours”
-- 1992 report by Sandia National Laboratories
What if we created a mashup, remixing the National Garden of American Heroes with a nuclear waste repository? Could it be the role of preservationists, planners, and artists to construct and interpret this landscape of collective hatred and toxicity? Should danger be locked away and hidden forever, or should it be highly visible, a warning for future generations? We could use these fitting hands to place monuments of hatred alongside the detritus of modernist technological progress - in a landscape stolen and borrowed - to contextualize our past and also our present.
Randall Mason teaches that heritage is the past made useful. In healing, especially from trauma, sometimes the only way out is through. The heritage value of danger must be curated in a way that educates, mourns, warns, and hopefully prevents. This danger, after all, is present in our time and potentially theirs. But as the practice of preservation teaches us, nothing has to last forever.