Boy Scout Memorial
Donald De Lue
You can learn at least as much from the worst of Washington’s monuments as you can from its best. Here exemplifying the nadir of monumentality in Washington is the odd, unsettling Boy Scout Memorial. At its center is a bronze sculptural group mounted high on a stone pedestal. The sculpture faces an oval pool lined with an inscription explaining its creation. The inscription doesn’t say much of substance beside that the memorial was created on the 50thanniversary of scouting in the US. But while the inscription specifies that it is a “memorial”, it does not make clear what is being memorialized. Is it dedicated to dead boy scouts? This is surely not a memorial at all, but a monument: an object embodying an ideal of both past and future relevance. This is not just a quibble. It intimates real confusion at just what is being represented, and how. Further scrutiny only heightens the incoherence of this monument.
At the front of the sculptural group is a young scout, perhaps a ‘tween or early teen, carrying a walking stick and striding to the edge of the platform. His uniform and boots are precisely detailed. The insignia on his left shoulder, which normally gives a troop’s number and home location, states that this scout’s troop is (wittily) located in “Everywhere, USA.” Slightly behind him are two adult-sized figures, conceived in idealized Greco-Roman/Caucasian type. The man is almost completely nude, his buff, muscled body dramatically articulated with just a slight textile hiding between his legs. The woman wears a diaphanous gown. They are clearly a unit. All three are marching together, left leg forward. All three carry something in their left hand. From the woman’s outstretched hand emerges what seems like a gold stalagmite, its bright polished bronze surface a contrast to the dark, burnished bronze of the rest of the statue. The man nestles in his left arm what appears to be an antique helmet, together with a clear cut tree branch which, with an acorn attached to it, is identifiable as an oak. But if it is hard to discern these details, it is even harder to figure out what they mean.
The website of the National Park Service, which owns and maintains the monument, tells us the man “carries a helmet, a symbol of masculine attire and a live oak branch, a symbol of peace and of strength.” This is bewildering to an art historian. The oak is most famous culturally as a tree sacred to the ancient Druids, and later appropriated by Christians. It was also a national symbol for the German nation in the age of Romanticism, as well as number of other particular things. The acorn is best known for its use as a symbol for several Renaissance popes. Better to have told us something obvious and far less profound-sounding, like that the little acorn will someday grow into a big, strong tree. It’s an even bigger strikeout on helmets, since in the classical antiquity the sculptures aspire to, the prominent goddess Athena is quite often seen in a helmet, and even full armor.
The rest of the National Park Service explanation of the sculptural group derives from the inscription on the pavement next to it. I will quote it in full:
“The two symbolical [sic] figures represent the sum of the great ideas of past civilizations developed through the centuries and now at best as delivered by American manhood and womanhood to the present generation.
The Boy Scout, aware of his fellowship with scouts around the world and symbolic of all Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Explorers striding into the future represents their hope that all that is fine in our nation’s past will continue to live in future generations. The male figure symbolizes love of country, citizenship, patriotism, loyalty, honor, integrity, courage, clean living, and physical development.
The female figure symbolizes the spiritual qualities of good citizenship, enlightenment with the light of faith, love of god, high ideals, liberty, freedom, democracy, love of humanity, lighting the way.”
Got all that? It does sorta explain that the thing coming from the woman’s hand is light of some kind. Otherwise, it loads an impossible, vast burden of qualities that is totally invisible to the unindoctrinated viewer. There’s a lot more that could be said of this revealing text. Its rigid gender distinctions, privileging of male over female, and assumption of American global superiority are all worthy of analysis in their own right. Were they official policy of the Boy Scouts?
More important here, just what is this monument now? Though located directly on a major tourist route, in President’s Park between the White House and National Mall, it is rarely noted at all. Last time I was there, I saw only a family sitting on one bench eating lunch (and staring elsewhere) while across the way a homeless man slept on another bench. It’s a good place to be left alone. The few viewers who do note the monument are often bewildered and/or appalled, for obvious reasons. In recent years, the Boy Scouts have been fundamentally tainted as an organization, by what has been called an “epidemic” of pedophilia and other sexual abuse scandals. So much so that new laws have been passed in response. Thus even former Boy Scouts are disquieted by a commemorative statue of a naked man (with adult female enabler?) standing behind a young boy.
This monument is an arrogant, overblown thing, reactionary even for its time (the year arch-conservative Barry Goldwater lost by a landslide for President). Whose idea was it in the first place? Its sculptor, Donald De Lue, was a prolific maker of overtly heroized imagery, often involving military events from Vietnam to Valley Forge. Hardly least are his three separate monuments at Gettysburg to different groups in the Confederate army, produced in the 70’s, well after the Boy Scout monument. Some portions of the Boy Scouts themselves, at the time of the monument, also employed confederate regalia and even marched with neo-confederate groups (and many confederate monuments specialize in windy rhetoric), so the commonality might even be more than superficial.
More important, the Boy Scout Memorial is an object lesson in how a monument dies. The polar opposite of the Lincoln Memorial, which was created for one audience but thrives with help from a very different one, the Boy Scout Memorial sits alone, not very easy to look at, with very few people looking.