This poster is part of Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: WWII to the Cold War, Fredericksburg, Texas, June 4-6, 2019.
by Kathleen Conti
In the months before the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, some veterans did not want to go to Normandy to venerate America’s sacrifice; they wanted to have something closer to home, something epitomized America’s contribution but on American soil. This team of veterans decided to build a National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. As nineteen of the “Bedford Boys” died on June 6, 1944, Bedford claims the highest per-capita loss of any town in any Allied nation. This year is the seventieth-fifth anniversary of the Normandy landings, made particularly poignant given the ever dwindling number of veterans. Yet the National D-Day Memorial struggles to remain open and continues to confront several salient preservation questions about historical integrity.
This presentation explores the cultural landscape of the memorial—built on top of sacred Native American land—and examines the memorial’s tumultuous history and its failed attempts to be incorporated into the National Park Service. This piece builds off oral history interviews and archival records; to date, I am the only researcher granted access to the Memorial’s archive, especially after the federal government charged one memorial president with four counts of fraud due to questionable fundraising tactics.
Hoping to broaden their scope to discuss the large implications and consequences of World War II, the National D-Day Memorial installed a bust of Josef Stalin as part of an exhibit on Allied leaders in 2010. This decision sparked an international controversy, as both Russians and Americans questioned why anyone would sculpt a bust of Stalin. At a public forum, several people said they would rather see a bust of Adolf Hitler, arguing that the memorial should refrain from any mention of the Soviet Union. Many veterans publicly argued that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with D-Day and little to do with winning World War II. Eventually, the Memorial relocated the Stalin bust to a secret location, intending to reinstalling it next to ones of Churchill and Roosevelt in the same order as the iconic Yalta Conference photograph in 2011, but never did so.
The Stalin imbroglio underscores how the National D-Day Memorial became an unintentional battleground over the place of World War II in American memory as varying constituencies dispute its purpose and future, muddling its effectiveness. Monuments and memorials are built in memory of the honored dead, but they are built by and for the living. Today, however, many memorials—including the D-Day Memorial—are also seeking to fulfill the educational function typical of museums. Balancing these two functions is complex, given that the act of memorializing is inherently subjective and museums should strive for objectivity.
This presentation grapples with the difficulties and ethics of preservation for sites and objects commemorating events that occurred in other locations. It explores the responsibility of site boards and directors to history as well as the constituencies supporting it, examining the compromises made to remain relevant and financially viable.
Kathleen Conti is a doctoral student in Historic Preservation at the University of Texas at Austin and also works as a historian and preservation specialist at HHM & Associates. Her dissertation, “Bourbon, Bullets, and Bodies: Memory and Historic Preservation at Berkeley Plantation,” offers a new approach to preservation by re-examining how the current curation of sites of African American heritage often leave out the black experience. Proficient in Russian and Kazakh, her research spans across the Americas and the former Soviet Union, focusing on how to preserve and interpret places of “difficult heritage”—sites of trauma, contested history, or atrocities