Vietnam Visitors' Center May Lead to 'Memorial Envy'

Nathan Burchfiel | Staff Writer | Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Vietnam Visitors' Center May Lead to 'Memorial Envy'

( - The group raising money for the construction of a visitors' center at the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in Washington, D.C., has among its goals "to avoid controversy." But groups opposed to the visitors' center worry it could lead to "memorial envy" and overcrowding of the National Mall.

Judy Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, said the problem of "memorial envy" has been going on for a long time, with supporters of each memorialized group wanting their monument to be bigger and better than the last.

"It's not going to stop, is the problem," she told Cybercast News Service. "Everyone thinks that to be on the Mall is to be important, and to be off the Mall is to be relegated to second-class status."

Feldman said now that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has received approval for a visitors' center, "The Korean War memorial is going to want a visitors' center and the World War II memorial is going to want a visitors' center because as people get older and as memories start to fade people say, 'Well now I need to explain it.'"

She pointed to the National Museum of African American History and Culture - which will be adjacent to the Washington Monument - as further evidence of "memorial envy." Feldman said supporters demanded that the facility "had to be on the Mall and it had to be at least as big" as the American Indian Museum, which opened Sept. 21, 2004.

Instead of building multiple visitors' centers, Feldman suggested one national military history museum "where all the war stories are told rather than dividing our history into these individual things."

But Lisa Gough, a spokeswoman for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Fund (VVMF), which must raise the estimated $100 million for the visitors' center, said it is a necessary supplement to the existing memorial.

The center will also be "more complex than the wall in many ways," Gough told Cybercast News Service. She said it will include different exhibits in several different rooms that will "give the facts on the war. 'Here's what happened, when.'"

Gough said supporters of the center want to avoid controversy and "don't want to give conclusions either way to our visitors" about the necessity of the controversial war.

Some veterans are complaining, however, that the stipulation that the visitors' center be built underground implies that the government is trying to bury memories of the conflict. Opponents of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial - a 493-foot black granite wall inscribed with the names of more than 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict - argued that its ground-slicing design portrayed the war as a scar.

Feldman said the main problem with the approved site is that the VVMF wanted to build its visitors' center on the National Mall instead of an existing location farther away.

The National Capital Planning Commission approved the building site but mandated that the center be built underground to avoid disrupting sightlines from the nearby Lincoln Memorial. The center will be located in a man-made extension of the original National Mall built over Tiber Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River, which could create problems with water tables and flood plains for an underground structure.

The VVMF estimates the building will cost as much as $100 million, which must all come from private donations. The group stated in a press release that it has already raised $25 million and expects to complete fundraising efforts in 2008.

The visitors' center and its exhibits will be designed by the companies that planned the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark.

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