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Title:"Empty chairs, broken lives": The Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum
Author(s):Holland, Martin
Director of Research:Hays, David L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Hays, David L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Deming, Margaret E.; Lleras, Christy; Ruggles, D. Fairchild
Department / Program:Landscape Architecture
Discipline:Landscape Architecture
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Oklahoma City National Memorial
Memorial Landscape
Commemorative Landscape
Architectural Competition
Memorial Competition
Dark Tourism
Abstract:This dissertation offers a description of the memorial and museum of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum; provides a critical analysis of the memorial process used to generate the institution; and, finally, documents a historical context that situates the bombing and the subsequent memorial within a rich and complicated urban history. The dissertation describes the constructed Memorial and the Memorial Museum in Oklahoma City, designed by Hans and Torrey Butzer and Sven Berg, built to honor the 168 people who died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial is comprised of specific interventions that correspond with the particular identities of social groups affected by the bombing, including survivors, victims, children, and rescuers. I argue that these interventions – the Gates of Time, the Survivor's Wall, the Field of Empty Chairs, the Reflecting Pool, the Rescuer's Orchard, the Children's Area and the Survivor's Tree – form a memorial circuit, intended to be experienced through bodily engagement with the series of stations by a visitor. The Museum relies on re-enactment in order for a visitor to understand the traumatic experiences encountered by the people within the Murrah Building at the time of the bombing. The Museum highlights the generosity and courage exemplified by the people of Oklahoma in the immediate aftermath of the bombing during rescue and recovery operations - what came to be known and celebrated as "The Oklahoma Standard.” I argue that the Memorial and the Museum work in tandem. A visitor is encouraged to "experience the museum," where the exhibit strategies simulate the trauma experienced by the original victims. In turn, they are then encouraged to "visit the memorial," where they are soothed by the tranquil setting of the Butzer's design, an example of how nature is regarded as a restorative agent. The dissertation details and critically analyzes the memorial process including the initial public survey, the competition brief, the architectural competition, and the controversy that led to the firing of the competition advisor, Paul Sperigeren. This process began within days of the bombing, when a call for a memorial was put forward. The rush to memorialize was an attempt to provide psychological triage in the immediate aftermath of the destruction. It forestalled a sustained examination of the event and its possible meanings. It also had the effect of privileging the voices of victims and family members who had lost loved ones. Great deference was shown to the victims and family members throughout the memorial process, culminating in family members being the final arbiters of the memorial design competition. The Butzer’s design, with its distinctive element of 168 chairs, supplied family members with a specific location to interact with their lost loved one by leaving mementoes - the simple markers of the domestic sphere function as an example of what Kenneth Foote has called sanctification. Furthermore, the Reflecting Pool offers a tranquil, therapeutic space. The success of the Butzers' design can be traced back to the results of the original survey about people wanted "to feel and experience." Finally, the dissertation charts the history of the built environment of Oklahoma City from its founding in 1889 through to the dedication of the Memorial Museum in 2001. In addition, it traces the history of the site of the Murrah Building and the subsequent memorial grounds. This history includes a discussion of I.M. Pei's 1964 Master Plan for Oklahoma City. The urban analysis reveals that the implementation of Pei's urban renewal plan was piecemeal, where parts of the downtown were demolished faster than his vision could be constructed, leaving a large swath of undeveloped, and empty lots within the heart of the city. After the bombing in 1995, leaving the site of the decimated Murrah building as a urban void was not an option given the citizens' frustration with the glacial progress of the implementation of I.M. Pei's plan. The bombing put to rest longstanding political differences and allowed the city to finally spend tax revenue it had been collecting for two years to fund urban infrastructure. In addition, the bombing provided the city with a national identity, one exemplified by the Oklahoma Standard, which became a civic brand. This historical contextualization is significant for understanding the Oklahoma City memorial because it helps reveal the economic and political realities that were in play at the time of the bombing and throughout the truncated memorial process. In a sense, the Memorial Museum was part of a longer-term effort of civic boosterism.
Issue Date:2014-05-30
Rights Information:Copyright 2014 Martin J. Holland
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-05-30
Date Deposited:2014-05

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