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Columbia Missourian

FROM READERS: 'Transcendent Tower' exhibition offers new vision of Memorial Union

October 11, 2012 | 12:00 p.m. CDT
The "Transcendent Tower" online exhibition on the Museum of Art and Archaeology website offers visitors a new vision of Memorial Union. The exhibition was researched and created by Rebecca Dunham, a former museum graduate research assistant who spent nearly a year assembling and assessing archival materials to bring it to life.

W. Arthur Mehrhoff is the academic coordinator for the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Musings, the museum's blog.

For most people, The Columns or the glistening, white dome of Jesse Hall symbolize the University of Missouri. For me, it’s always been the grey Gothic stone arches of the historic Memorial Union. I first saw the Memorial Union as a little boy accompanied by my father and uncle, two distinguished World War II veterans, while attending a Mizzou football game way back in the early sixties. Over time, that initial platonic experience of a college campus has made the Memorial Union a sacred vessel for me containing their memory. Places like the Memorial Union possess many layers of meaning that both reflect and shape our identity.


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Today the Memorial Union is part of my everyday landscape here at Mizzou. While I appreciate the opportunity to be part of campus life through my role as Academic Coordinator for the Museum of Art & Archaeology, its easy familiarity also poses a difficult challenge for me to continue learning from the landscape. Environmental psychologists call this habituation, a well-documented mental process by which we tend to overlook many familiar features of our environment and gradually forget their original meanings. As with the works of art here in the Museum of Art and Archaeology where I work, we need to learn how to blow off the dust of passing time, see beneath their surface and find our own stories in them. In the profound words of novelist Marcel Proust, “The secret is not to seek new landscapes but to see ourselves with new eyes.”

The "Transcendent Tower" online exhibition on the Museum of Art and  Archaeology website offers us such remarkable new vision of the Memorial Union and serves as our tour guide to that foreign country known as The Past. The exhibition was researched and created by Rebecca Dunham, a former Museum graduate research assistant who spent nearly a year assembling and assessing archival materials to bring this marvelous exhibition to life. You can also view portions of the exhibition on display in Memorial Union lounge. The "Transcendent Tower" helps us transcend our habituation to see how others before us have viewed Memorial Union, so that we can indeed begin to see ourselves with new eyes.

The proud Memorial Union itself is a monument (from the Latin, “to bring to mind”) layered with traditional symbols we have long forgotten or perhaps never even learned. For veterans of World War II, like my boyhood heroes, the Memorial Union may have brought to mind their enormous sacrifices or those of their parents and other veterans of The Great War which the Memorial Union was originally built to honor. For the distinguished Memorial Union architects Jamieson and Spearl, the vast project spanning several decades echoed the rich architectural symbolism of the Middle Ages, especially those great English universities Oxford and Cambridge.

British philosopher G.K. Chesterton, who both reflected and shaped those great English universities, called such tradition "the democracy of the dead." Many people today regard higher education as just another consumer commodity to be purchased as cheaply as possible, and the rise of online education reflects that economic calculus. But the names of the honored dead so carefully etched into the walls of the Memorial Union tell me that’s just not true. For Chesterton, a university represented a community rooted in a place but also extending over time, a democracy of the past as well as the present and future, requiring us to extend ourselves and our limited understanding of who we are.

As President Lincoln professed in his First Inaugural Address: "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Like the old school tradition of tipping your cap when passing through the arch of the Memorial Union, those "mystic chords of memory" help us to remember our community over time and space. As Mizzou approaches another Homecoming in our century-old tradition, I encourage you to continue building the Memorial Union and the university it symbolizes with your own stories and memories here in the From Readers section of the Missourian. Help us see this place with new eyes.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising Editor Joy Mayer.