Friday, 6 February 2015




At this point I suppose I should know well enough that an object can contain any number of meanings -- and whether that object is living or artificial is beside the point. Sadly, I often find myself oblivious to natural elements when in “curated” spaces like museums, historic sites, or memorials, focusing instead on a building’s architecture, its interior design, and the arrangement of art and artifacts.
The Philosopher's Walk alongside the ROM. Source: lostphotograph
Of course, as Leah Maconda reminded us last week with her post about gardens, a natural space in or around a museum can be “a peripheral place where unique things happen and escape of a different nature is facilitated.” Leah’s discussion, paired with recent lessons on the possible interpretations of the coniferous tree, jolted me from my obliviousness and demanded my improved attention to natural details.

Learning about the potential meanings of the coniferous tree happened during a recent event at the ROM. On January 25, I attended the panel discussion “Memorializing the Holocaust in the 21st Century,” featuring the planners and designers of the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa. The team brings an incredible diversity of disciplines and expertise to the project, and includes architect Daniel Libeskind, photographer Edward Burtynsky, landscape architect Claude Cormier, Lord Cultural Resources president Gail Lord and principal consultant Dov Goldstein, and content advisor and U of T professor Doris Bergen.

A birds-eye rendering of the National Holocaust Monument. Source:

As each member of the team discussed his or her own contribution to the monument, it was clear how every square inch of it would be imbued with meaning. Libeskind talked about the symbolism of the star in this and other Jewish memorials and museums he has designed, as well as possible feelings evoked by the different angles of light and shadow the structure would create. Burtynsky ruminated on his haunting photographs of former concentration camps, overgrown after 70 years but still retaining traces of horror, which would be permanently impressed upon the walls of the monument.

A rendering of the monument from within. Source:

When landscape architect Claude Cormier rose to discuss his contribution to the design using natural elements, I was struck by all the possible meanings of the coniferous trees that will surround the structure. Inspired by the resilience and persistent growth of coniferous trees in a far north climate that nurtures so little life, the trees will serve as a symbol of hope and life within the devastating context of the Holocaust. The conifers will also bring a Canadian element to the monument. Additionally, instead of soil, small pebbles will surround the trees: These pebbles were once jagged but have been softened over time, again acknowledging the years passed since the Holocaust happened but signalling its lasting presence -- and the need to continue to remember it.

Conifers in a boreal forest. Source: GlobalPost
Perhaps this approach to trees felt new to me, because whenever I have wandered through a forest or stepped through a grove, I’ve never been faced with their possible symbolic meanings -- but rather, I’ve taken the opportunity to experience them solely for their inherent features: the smell of sap, the stinging points of needles, the visual magnificence of a fully-grown fir. Now I know better to appreciate them both for their natural construction as well as their potential for interpretation.


  1. As someone who also attended the "Memorializing the Holocaust" talk, I am very glad you chose to not just talk about the monument, but that you focused on the trees that will be planted around it specifically. We often exclude plants when we think about museum objects although they can carry particular significance, like the trees mentioned here. The natural landscape is such an important part of Canada's identity; highlighting it in the monument with the instantly recognizable Canadian conifer while making deep connections to the Holocaust to inspire remembrance was an excellent choice by Cormier.

  2. This post is so interesting, Katherine! It made me think at something I never considered before - as the Holocaust is such as universal moment, it tends to be commemorated in similar tropes in multiple parts of the world - but the Holocaust is also a local moment in history and I find fascinating the thoughts that memorialization of the Holocaust can be done paying attention to the local aspect of rememebering.