The Last Steps

Active History has a pre-Remembrance Day blog post by Claire L. Halstead on The Last Steps, a recently unveiled First World War memorial on the Halifax waterfront.

The memorial takes the shape of an arch and stands on the city’s harbour front; a gangplank purposefully leads the observer’s eye up the pier, through the arch, and right out to sea. Footprints (cast from an authentic soldier’s boot) burnt into the wooden pier conjure up impressions of souls from long ago. In this, Nancy Keating, the Nova Scotia artist who designed the memorial, succeeds in imparting on the observer the haunting emotion the memorial is intended to convey. The memorial stands as a testament to the last steps soldiers took in Halifax before departing for the Great War.

One of Halstead’s comments about the memorial is that there’s a tension over its location. Despite its title and its positioning, The Last Steps is actually about a kilometer away from where Canadian soldiers who departed through Halifax actually embarked. Instead of being at Pier 2, the memorial is at Pier 21 close to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and on a far more traveled part of the waterfront.

Two questions which Halstead poses are a) “is it acceptable to sacrifice an essence of historical accuracy to ensure public engagement?” and b) whether the spatial distortion in The Last Steps‘s location could be “reconciled by expanding the scope of the memorial to include and emphasise Halifax’s contribution to the war in addition to the men who departed from it.”

I wonder whether the fact Halstead even poses the question is connected to the fact that The Last Steps is a mimetic memorial whose footprints, gangplank, and arch are built to look like an artifact of the era rather than a modern allusion. We know that the map is never the territory and that even “on this spot” markers make concessions to traffic and construction. The National War Memorial in Ottawa stands on a spot hallowed by nothing in particular from the war it commemorates, apart from proximity to Parliament. Not every question about a memorial’s location has to do with its style, as another post on Active History demonstrates, but in this case I feel like the memorial’s look has to be a factor.

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