The effort to build a National Desert Storm Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., passed a significant milestone last week with formal approval of a design concept granted by the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts.
The Education Center at the Wall, set to open its doors in 2020, would be the latest historical showpiece on the National Mall, 25,000 square feet of exhibition space dedicated to the memory of the Vietnam War, clad in Italian glass and jutting steel, occupying five acres of coveted Washington real estate. Mandated by Congress to be visible only from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial — and just enough to “satisfy its purpose” without “disrupting the landscape” — the center would be accessible by a flight of stairs guiding visitors into a warren of galleries replete with an array of museum exhibits and multimedia installations examining our troubled involvement in Southeast Asia. Those exhibits would tell the story of the war as it was experienced both at home and on the battlefield, from myriad perspectives.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial project was plagued by problems from the start. Not only did the project’s leader, Jan C. Scruggs, have to contend with the fact that nobody had ever built a veterans memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., before, but many veterans and policy makers thought the design was too avant-garde. A giant wall of polished black rock etched with the names of the 58,256 American service members who were either killed or went missing in Vietnam seemed more reminiscent of the anti-war movement than the war itself. The project moved forward anyways and was completed in 1982. And it didn’t take long for the memorial wall to become, as Scruggs later described it, “something of a shrine,” for those who served in Vietnam — a testament to the adage, “if you build it, they will come.” On any given day you’ll see them, the veterans of the Vietnam War, among the crowds of chattering tourists. They appear, in some way, more anchored to the wall than everyone else.