What is the difference between a museum and a memorial?

One question that occurred to me while reading Adam Gopnik’s review of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (officially titled in that order), was about how we differentiate between a museum and a memorial. In particular, I was struck Gopnik’s claim that “if there is an absolute case for a [9/11] memorial, the case for a museum is more unsettled.” What does a memorial do that a museum does not, and vice versa? While initially the differences should be obvious, the more I thought on this question, the more similarities I noticed between the two.

Both museums and memorials ostensibly deal in subjects from the past, even though the people and phenomena they reference may still exist in the present. For example a memorial to a civil rights leader might carry relevance to the civil rights movement today, and museum exhibits can reference contemporary themes. This past year for example, the Museum of the Moving Image held their exhibit: How Cats Took Over the Internet. Architectural memorials, such as the Lincoln Memorial show how memorials as well as museums can exist as physical spaces, rather than simply an object. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial and associated Three Servicemen Memorial and Vietnam’s Woman Memorial, show that memorials do not necessarily consist of a singular object, nor are they necessarily static. They also both rely on visual methods of communication as at least part of their project, although text is often included—for example in the form of plaques or exhibit labels. Both can be used in educational efforts and encompass varying levels of abstraction. They can also represent anonymity—whether in the form of objects of murky provenance or memorials for unknown soldiers.

So why, for example, is the Tenement Museum a museum and not a memorial to the millions of immigrants that worked, struggled, failed, triumphed, and made New York their home? Or any historic house museum that as perfectly as possible preserves the home of someone significant and deceased?

Above all, I think it is the element of the quotidian that differentiates these places. Not only in the themes they represent, but in how they are treated. Although every-day, personal objects were left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the meaning of those objects and their placement there held a gravitas that a pair of 19th-century shoes presented at the Museum of the City of London would not. This is not to say that museums are unimportant but rather that they can be spaces for exploration of the unexceptional. While the subjects of memorials are occasionally forgotten, their creation was meant to confirm and symbolize the elevation of the subject, whether for the purpose of celebration, or grieving, or inspiration. While there are museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the Victoria & Albert, or historic house museums in Newport that can relate to unique and important people and themes, memorials are made solely for the momentous, and the subjects must be deemed worthy of memorialization. This is why the Museum of the City New York, in its major exhibition on the history of the city, does of course have items related to momentous people (for example, Robert Moses’ badge) but also has simple objects related to very everyday life, like water buckets, cigar molds, snuffboxes, bath towels, and candy tins. Perhaps though, in this way, the museum can serve as a memorial to an everyday life that existed in the past.

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