SHRINES: Public Weapons in America

What happens to weapons of war when they are no longer useful for their original purposes? Those that are not scrapped often are given second lives in the public sphere, mounted in places of honor in communities across the United States. Town squares, city parks, armories, VFW and American Legion posts display retired weapons from past American conflicts. Built for combat or other military functions, these objects now serve in a range of entirely different roles in their new settings: memorial, tourist attraction, retail signage, playground equipment, historic artifact.

There is an art and science to preserving and mounting large-scale weapons that is akin to taxidermy. I’ve observed a wide variance in the care and effectiveness of these efforts. Some weapons are in great shape, well maintained and standing proudly with fresh, historically accurate paint jobs. Others are sad looking, altered almost beyond recognition by neglect and/or repurposing.

My fascination and curiosity is driven by these questions:

  • Why is a machine that was made for killing used as a memorial to the dead? Does it help a community mourn and heal from its losses, or is it intended to inspire new generations of warriors? Can it do both? 

  • As these weapons age, their surfaces weather, and their technologies become obsolete, do they lose their associations with death and warfare?

  • With our nation once again at war, what can these relics of previous wars teach us about America’s (and humanity’s) proclivity for armed conflict?

My hope is that images of these weapons will lead us to consider the complexities of community response to war and remembrance in America.