As London honors Covid-19 victims and key workers with a blossom garden, experts consider the power of memorials

Written by Nina Avramova, CNNLondon

While the global Coronavirus death toll continues to climb each day, some people are beginning to ask: how can we mark the colossal loss of life that has been experienced around the world?

A team of local creative workers in London are among those offering an answer. This week, a Covid-19 memorial garden has been unveiled in the capital’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Made from reclaimed materials and featuring 33 newly planted blossoming trees, the London Blossom Garden is a tribute to key workers and a space for quiet reflection for anyone wishing to visit.

The newly inaugurated site is unique in that it joins a surprisingly short list of tributes to health crises, said art historian Aindrea Emelife.

According to Emelife, just over a century ago, the 1918 influenza pandemic claimed at least 50 million lives — but, there are few public art installations marking this loss. The First World War by comparison, in which far fewer people died, is commemorated in most parts of the world with numerous statues, plinths and annual events, all reckoning with the human cost of the conflict. “Because the war is very much a man-made disaster, it’s easier to commemorate, rather than something that was seen as unavoidable or natural,” explained Emelife.

Community & advocacy

Historically, memorials have been a way to collectively mark the end of a devastating event. With the pandemic still ongoing, memorials installed now could serve a more immediate purpose. For, Paul Farber, a senior research scholar at the Weitzman school of design at the University of Pennsylvania, this means also advocating for change.

“What we’ve seen, especially from artists and grassroots organizers, is that the mourning also means fighting for survival. It means fighting for resources. It means addressing the inequities in the pandemic along lines of race and class and other social distinctions.”

With this in mind idea, Farber would like to see a network of Covid-19 memorials installed, that would, crucially, come hand-in-hand with resources such as grief counseling or financial support for people who have lost their jobs. “That requires […] creativity, that requires thinking across sector(s), but it also is part of a long process of moving through the pandemic,” Farber said.

No community has been left untouched by the virus, said art historian Emelife, who is also a writer and curator.

“It’s a big ask to find something that can symbolize all of that. And it might be that there’ll be a number of different memorials to different things; memorials to social issues that have risen, memorials to key workers, or memorials to the every person, the every experience — whether it’s memorializing our times at home or the rise of technology,” she suggested.

A nod to relatable moments like zoom birthday parties, or appreciation for key workers or people staying at home, would allow for reflection and help us to move on, Emelife said. Importantly, the community should be at the heart of any installation for it to truly resonate.

Interactions build meaning

Whether they be large, civic installations or personal altar offerings, acts of remembrance are all part of a “long process of coming to terms with loss,” said Farber, who is also the director and co-founder of Monument Lab, a public art and history studio.

People’s interaction with civic memorials can turn these sites into powerful and meaningful places. For example, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington DC, designed by Maya Lin, is one of the most visited installations in the US. According to Faber, this is because “it’s become a site of offering that people interact with.”

Veterans family members pay honor who died in the war one day after US President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visit Vietnam Memorial Wall, today on March 30, 2021 at National Mall in Washington DC, USA. (Photo by Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Veterans family members pay honor who died in the war one day after US President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visit Vietnam Memorial Wall, today on March 30, 2021 at National Mall in Washington DC, USA. (Photo by Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto via Getty Images) Credit: Lenin Nolly/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The memorial’s long granite wall displays more than 58,000 names of servicemen and women who died in the conflict, or who are still missing. People have been leaving letters, flowers and other objects there ever since it first opened in 1982, making it a meeting place between the living and the deceased, explained Farber.

Lin’s work is visited by thousands of people daily, while its layout also allows for solitude. Its inscription of names means that “while you’re taking in this totality — overwhelming totality of loss — you can also put your fingers on one name at a time to grasp the meaning of that particular lost life,” said Farber.

Deep emotional impact

Effective memorials can, knowingly or unknowingly, tap into human psychology said cognitive neuroscientist Colin Ellard.

Peter Eisenman’s famous “Memorial To The Murdered Jews of Europe,” situated in the heart of Berlin, is a striking open-air design made up of 2,711 imposing stone blocks of varying heights, arranged in a maze-like fashion across over 200,000 square feet. For Ellard, it’s an example of how a physical space can have a powerful psychological impact. Walking through the stone monoliths is disorienting and leaves just enough space for people to forge their own path. “My hunch is that what (Eisenman) was trying to do was to put you into the mindset of one of the victims of the Holocaust, by giving you the feeling that here you’ve been stripped away from your family, your friends, your acquaintances, you’re all alone, but every once in a while, you’re absolutely penetrated by this surveillance — these gazes from outside.”

Peter Eisenman's Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Germany.

Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Germany. Credit: Shutterstock

Nature sites, on the other hand, like the recently opened London Blossom Garden, can be healing spaces. “We are built to respond positively to nature,” said Ellard, who also runs the Urban Realities Laboratory at the University of Waterloo. There is a wealth of research showing that being exposed to scenes of nature — even in fairly modest ways — improves physical and mental health. “It even changes things like the way that we pay attention to the world — […] it makes us kinder to one another.”

A reference point for grief

Once a memorial exists in the public sphere, it can offer people a space and reference point for their grief, said Farber. “Memorials may not do away with grief, but they give us a space to process and potentially to gather with others [..] on the path to coping.”

But countries, cities and artists should also consider the timing of a memorial’s construction, said Emelife. There is the danger of tributes being seen as abrasive and painful if erected too soon after the devastating event they are marking.

She explained: “If it’s going to be permanent, and it’s going to be out there in the public realm for us to see every day, we need that distance and we need that sense of building up the society and building up our future so that we can look at it not with dismay, but with hope and with sort of pride as to what we’ve been through.”

The new memorial garden in London will continue to develop and transform over the coming years as the young plants grow, perhaps, in poignant reference to society’s evolving relationship with the memory of the pandemic.

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