For most people the glistening, white classical dome of Jesse Hall symbolizes the University of Missouri. For me, it’s the grey Gothic stone arches of the Memorial Union. I first saw the Memorial Union as a little boy with my father and uncle, two distinguished World War Two veterans, while attending a Mizzou football game way back in the early Sixties. Now the Memorial Union contains their memory and those memories, at least for me. It’s really much more than just a building, you see.
Memorial Union is part of our everyday landscape here at Mizzou, but its easy familiarity also poses a difficult challenge. Environmental psychologists call this habituation, a process in which we overlook familiar features of our environment and forget their original meanings. As my own experience suggests, places like Memorial Union possess many layers of meaning that both reflect and shape our identity. As with the works of art in the Museum of Art & Archaeology, we need to learn how to read our own stories in them. In the words of novelist Marcel Proust, “The secret is not to seek new landscapes but to see ourselves with new eyes.” The Transcendent Tower photographic exhibition does just that. It serves as our tour guide to that foreign country known as The Past. The exhibition was researched and created for the Memorial Union 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. It helps us transcend our habituation and see how others before us have viewed the Memorial Union.
Memorial Union itself is a monument (from the Latin, to bring to mind) layered with traditional symbols we have long forgotten. For veterans of World War Two like my heroes, Memorial Union may have brought to mind their enormous sacrifices or those of veterans of The Great War it was originally built to honor. For Memorial architects Jamieson and Spearl, the project echoed the rich architectural symbolism of the Middle Ages and of those great English universities Oxford and Cambridge. British philosopher G.K. Chesterton, who both reflected and shaped those great English universities, called tradition “the democracy of the dead.” Many people today regard higher education as just another consumer commodity to be purchased as cheaply as possible; the names etched into the Memorial Union tell me that’s not true. For Chesterton a university was a community rooted in a place but extending over time, requiring us to extend ourselves and our limited understanding of who we are.
Like the Old School tradition of tipping your cap when passing through the arch of the Memorial Union, our memories and stories help to re-member our our community and continue building the symbolism of the Memorial Union.