How do architects grapple with the challenge? Do the words to be inscribed influence the overall design? Or, do the demands of the design alter the text?
Inscriptions at the Martin Luther King Jr. National MemorialAccording to some critics, architect Dr. Ed Jackson, Jr. ran afoul of the truth when designed the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial in Washington DC. The Memorial included words from Dr. King's 1968 sermon known as The Drum Major Instinct. Toward the end of that rousing sermon, King said:
"Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Amen!)."However these were not the words engraved on one side of Dr. King's statue. The sculptor of the Memorial, Chinese artist Lei Yixin, shortened the quote so it would fit in the space that the architect had allotted. With Dr. Jackson's approval, King's words became: "I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness."
Poet Maya Angelou, who was a member of the Council of Historians for the Memorial, expressed outrage. She asked why the words of the slain civil rights leader had been paraphrased. Other critics joined her in saying that the the shortened quote alters its meaning and makes Martin Luther King appear arrogant.
Dr. Jackson argued that designing a beautiful monument required abbreviating some of King's words. For him, aesthetics trumped authenticity.
After some resistance, officials eventually decided to remove the historical inaccuracies from the Memorial. The National Park Service had sculptor Lei Yixin fix the disputed quote.
Inscriptions at the Jefferson MemorialArchitects John Russell Pope, Daniel P. Higgins, and Otto R. Eggers faced a similar challenge when they designed the nearby Jefferson Memorial. How could they represent the words of a great leader who was also a prolific writer? Like Dr. Jackson, they opted to edit famous quotes.
Panel 3 of the Jefferson Memorial reads: "Commerce between master and slave is despotism." But, according to Monticello.org, Jefferson originally wrote: "The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other."
Indeed, some of the inscriptions carved in stone at the Jefferson Memorial are composites created by patching different documents together.
Inscriptions at the Lincoln MemorialWhen architect Henry Bacon designed the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, he combined a mammoth 19-foot statue by Chester French with historically accurate inscriptions of speeches written by Lincoln. Imagine, however, if Bacon had taken short cuts. What if Lincoln's famous words "With malice toward none, with charity for all" became, "With malice"? Would the shortened version change our perception of Abraham Lincoln?
The opposite wall of the Memorial contains the entire, unedited text of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. If the architect had desired to save wall space, he might have shortened the speech to: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not."
What story would the revised quote tell about the great leader?