Einstein as Science Santa: Monumental Meanings & Wil Wheaton

Recently, Wil Wheaton posted a picture and quote on twitter and his blog (That time I met Albert Einstein) making use of the Albert Einstein Memorial at the National Academy of Science. It’s great, he is sitting on Einstein’s lap, making requests to Einstein as a kind of physics Santa. I really love how the post, and all the likes and favorites it has gotten reinforces a set of points I made about the memorial in my essay Tripadvisor rates Einstein: using the social web to unpack the public meanings of a cultural heritage site.wheaton-eisntein

I love the way this photo fits with much of the informal and playful ways that other photos of the monument work. Here is a bit of some of what I wrote in the piece on some photos of the monument on Flickr. The images are from Flickr, and the quotes from Yelp reviews of the memorial.

Most monuments in the area establish a kind of formality between visitors and the monument. Many are constructed to physically remove the subject from the reach of visitors. Others, like the nearby Lincoln Memorial establish this formality through written rules about respectful behaviour, and a request for hushed voices. Nearly all of the reviews (17 of 21) focus on elements of the informality of the monument as a key component of what makes it enjoyable. The reviewers tell us to “climb all over ‘Al’” or as another suggests “sit on his lap, or kiss his cheek”. On Flickr, photographers have captured this in images of visitors picking and rubbing his nose, kissing him, or in a few cases arguing with him. While there is no posted notices which suggest that it is ok to climb him, if you stop by the monument on any summer day you will witness a queue of visitors waiting to climb up on him and have their picture taken.

An example of how groups of tourists use the memorial to stage group photos

The pictures are themselves an important element in this experience. The image above provides an example of one of the most popular kinds of images of the memorial posted on Flickr. As one reviewer notes, “everyone needs at least one picture of themselves sitting on “Al’s” lap”. As you can see from the photograph, the scale and size of the monument makes it work as a space for staging photos. The monument is so photogenic that one reviewer suggests that it “just begs you to go sit on Uncle Al’s lap and get our picture taken”. For these reviewers a central part of the experience is the informality that the monument provides. It invites them to climb him, and leave with photographic evidence of them sitting on the world’s most instantly recognisable scientist. While everyone has photos of themselves standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial these reviewers believe “Your tour of the Mall is not complete” without having your picture taken on Einstein’s lap.

Photo: Schmidt, C., 2008. Arguing with Einstein, Available at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisbrenschmidt/2190660089/

It is worth taking moment to reflect on how some of the previous quotes refer to Einstein. The informality of these experiences is further communicated through a persistent use of his first name, or in some cases the diminutive form of his name, Al. This is itself a frequent component of these reviews. In using his first name, or calling him ‘Al’ the reviewers are communicating and playing with the informality of the memorial. The pervasiveness of this informality may be best evidenced in the recollections of a college student from a nearby university who ‘spent a lot of time just hanging out with ‘Al’’. The informality of the space and the fact that it is climbable leads many reviewers to discuss how it is a perfect place to bring kids. Many of the photos of the monument on Flickr show young children climbing all over him.

This level of informality is not something that all the reviewers think is necessarily a good thing. One reviewer suggests “most of the neat stuff was totally ignored by all the kids using the statue as a playground”. This reviewer goes on to suggest that the other elements in the composition of the statue, the quotations, and the map of the stars at his feet go unnoticed. From his perspective, visitors were “just jumping around”. He felt that “no one learned or read about the man memorialised”. This reviewer further suggests that it is ‘disrespectful’ to climb all over the monument, particularly, when there is no clear indication that touching or climbing the memorial is officially sanctioned by the sculptor or the National Academy of Sciences. There is defiantly credence to the questions the reviewer raises. To what extent are these visitors leaving with an understanding of the intentions behind the memorial? Certainly some visitor’s suggestions that “You can climb on the damn thing and stick pennies up his nose” take on a disrespectful tone. However, that is itself an interesting point of tension in the idea of Einstein. The more recently constructed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which is built on a scale that would allow one to climb on him, does not invite the same kind of interaction. Popular notions of Einstein as an informal figure have translated into how people interact with the memorial. The relaxed experience Berks found in sculpting the memorial from life is very directly translated into visitor’s comments about the informality and relaxing nature of the experience of the monument.

This is just a way of saying, for those of us interested in public memory and the role of memorials really need to be watching the ways that people make use and sense of them on social media. At this point, our experiences of these spaces are increasingly going to be seen through the lens of the tweets, reviews, and photos that others have taken and shared and commented on them.

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