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For all its incredible progress, human history is not without its dark patches — but embracing those moments as part of our story and learning from them adds to the fabric of what makes us so strong as a civilization. Across the globe, memorials and monuments serve as poignant reminders of the need to pause to reflect on our past and imagine a better future. Here are 20 places that tell such stories in unexpected and powerful ways.
9/11 Memorial & Museum (New York City)
In stark contrast to the bustle of downtown Manhattan, two reflecting pools sit quietly as part of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum on the former site of the World Trade Center’s towers, which tragically fell on September 11, 2001. Designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, the pools feature North America’s largest manmade waterfalls. The waters flow inward, first to a pool 30 feet below street level and then another 20 feet into a void that represents, in Arad's words, “absence made visible.” Surrounding them are the names of the 2,983 victims who lost their lives on that fateful September day, as well as those who perished in the 1993 attack.
The eight-acre memorial complex, which also houses an underground museum with 60,000-plus artifacts, is filled with 400 swamp white oak trees, a species native to New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania — the three plane crash sites. A single Callery pear tree, which was damaged during the attack, has been revived and is now known as the Survivor Tree.
Shoes on the Danube Bank (Budapest, Hungary)
Scattered about an embankment along the Danube River in Budapest, between the Chain Bridge and Elisabeth Bridge, are 60 pairs of ironcast women’s, men’s, and children’s shoes. Known as the Shoes on the Danube Bank, the memorial was conceived by filmmaker Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer — the empty shoes serve as a reminder of the haunting period in the mid-1940s during World War II when the country’s fascist Arrow Cross party lined Jewish victims along the river and forced them to remove their footwear before executing them.
Now the shoes serve as a permanent reminder of those lost, with flowers and candles often left in and around them. And on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, processions take place through the area to honor the victims.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (Hiroshima, Japan)
In the final year of World War II the United States detonated an atomic bomb about 2,000 feet above the Japanese city of Hiroshima. After suffering devastating loss of life and destruction on August 6, 1945, the city immediately vowed to become a symbol of peace. At its center is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a 29.6-acre green space offering tranquility along the Motoyasu River.
The grounds contain the Cenotaph for A-bomb Victims, built in 1952. A curved roof in the shape of a Japanese clay house covers a stone chamber containing the names of the victims. Also here, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is committed to “documenting and honoring the lives lost and convey to the world the horrors and the inhumane nature of nuclear weapons,” along with a hopeful message: “No more Hiroshimas.”
Pearl Harbor National Memorial (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Long before Pearl Harbor became known as the site of the December 7, 1941, attack that led to the United States entering World War II, the area was known for its wealth of pearl-bearing oysters. Called Wai Momi, or “waters of pearl,” by the ancient Hawaiians, the site was popular for fishing and diving. But in 1840, the area was identified as a strategic inner harbor, so a reef was removed to allow ships to enter without obstruction, and by 1908, a naval base was created.
Today, the Pearl Harbor National Memorial is most notable for the USS Arizona Memorial, a 184-foot curved white structure designed by architect Alfred Preis. The memorial sits above — but does not touch — the sunken ship where more than 900 of the ship’s crew lost their lives during the attack. “Wherein the structure sags in the center, but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory,” Preis explained. “The overall effect is one of serenity.”
Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Washington, D.C.)
In a city filled with memorials to our nation’s past, one of the most somber is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, located in the National Mall northeast of the Lincoln Memorial. The seemingly endless rows of names of the 58,000 Americans who gave their lives for their country during the Vietnam conflict show the tremendous impact of the war on the nation.
The memorial was the brainchild of Vietnam War veteran Jan Scruggs as a symbol to heal the nation from the wounds of the war. A contest was launched in 1979 for the design; the winning entry came from then 21-year-old Yale University senior Maya Ying Lin. “I had a simple impulse to cut into the earth,” she wrote in The New York Review of Books of her sunken black granite in a V formation. “I imagined taking a knife and cutting into the earth, opening it up, an initial violence and pain that in time would heal.”
National Memorial for Peace and Justice (Montgomery, Alabama)
Opened in April 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is, in the words of the Equal Justice Initiative, the “nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
The centerpiece of the six-acre site is a square with 800 six-foot-tall Corten steel monuments — one for each county in the nation where racial terror lynching occurred — in honor of the thousands of victims, whose names are engraved on the columns. The memorial hopes its message will foster change and “inspire communities across the nation to enter an era of truth-telling about racial injustice and their own local histories.”
Imagine Peace Tower (Reykjavik, Iceland)
Imagine all the people inspired by this tower of light conceived by Yoko Ono in memory of her husband, John Lennon of the Beatles, who was killed in 1980. Ono unveiled the Imagine Peace Tower on Reykjavik’s Viðey Island on October 9, 2007, which would have been Lennon’s 67th birthday.
The beam is projected annually from Lennon’s birth date through the day he passed away on December 8. It’s also illuminated for the winter equinox, from December 21 to New Year’s Eve, on February 18 for Ono’s birthday, and from March 20-27 during the spring equinox (which was also Lennon and Ono’s honeymoon). Illuminating from a wishing well with the phrase “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages, the memorial allows people from around the world to send their messages of peace into the well via Twitter, email, or postcard.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (Berlin, Germany)
In the heart of Berlin, just south of the Brandenburg Gate, is the somber 4.7-acre Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Made of 2,711 concrete blocks in varying sizes and laid on uneven ground, the site commemorates the six million Jewish Holocaust victims. A walk through the memorial conjures a feeling of uncertainty, to represent the harrowing lack of control the victims had over their fate.
Opened in 2005, the memorial was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenman to symbolize “the instability inherent in a system with a seemingly rational structure and the potential for its gradual dissolution.” The organization says of the site: “...In our monument there is no goal, no end, no way in or out. The time of the experience of the individual does not grant further understanding, because understanding is not possible.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial (Washington, D.C.)
Dedicated in 2011, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is packed with symbolism — right down to its address at 1964 Independence Avenue SW, honoring the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which King fought so hard for. Of the many quotes inscribed, one sits on a literal Stone of Hope, reading, “Out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
That quote was also the inspiration behind the winning design (out of 906 entries) from ROMA Design Group, which featured King protruding from a mountain. Visitors can enter from the “mountain of despair” and learn about his life before reaching the stone of hope.
Bologna Shoah Memorial (Bologna, Italy)
A pair of towering steel square blocks — each more than 30 feet high — sit across from each other on a corner of Bologna, Italy, between Via dei Carracci and the Via Matteotti bridge. Seemingly simplistic at first glance, the Bologna Shoah Memorial reveals itself when visitors step between the slabs. Inside, you’ll find rows upon rows of empty rectangular boxes reminiscent of Holocaust camp cells. Yet the outside is powerfully stoic, perhaps alluding to a new history to be written.
Opened on International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, 2016, the memorial was designed by Rome’s SET Architects, who say that the narrow path between the steel blocks was designed to invoke “a state of estrangement that leads [the visitor] to a personal and intimate reflection on the theme of the Holocaust.”
National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge (King of Prussia, Pennsylvania)
Where Outerline Drive and Gulph Road meet in King of Prussia is a landmark that seemingly belongs in Europe rather than Pennsylvania. Indeed, the National Memorial Arch, designed by Paul Phillipe Crette, was meant to be a take on Rome’s Arch of Titus, built in A.D. 81 to mark Emperor Titus’ capture of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The end result, the National Memorial Arch, was dedicated in 1917 to celebrate George Washington’s arrival at Valley Forge with the Continental Army.
As part of Valley Forge National Park, where Washington and his army famously endured the winter of 1777-1778, the site also hosts Washington’s Headquarters, Washington Memorial Chapel, and Muhlenberg Brigade Huts, rebuilt to Washington’s specs. But it’s the grandiose arch, with a single entrance, that most serves as a reminder of the military achievements of the future first President.
The Motherland Calls (Volgograd, Russia)
Since it was completed in 1967, the Motherland Calls statue has dominated the skyline of Volgograd. Standing 170 feet high, it depicts a woman confidently stepping forward and holding a 108-foot-long sword into the air. The overwhelming presence is a reminder of one of the deadliest battles of World War II, the 200-day Battle of Stalingrad (which is now the city of Volgograd). The 200 steps to the base symbolize each of those days.
The statue is a reminder from the “Motherland” to remain strong and not be defeated. Unfortunately, the size of the stainless steel statue has caused issues, as it’s started to lean, with the fear that it may one day fall over.
Korean War Memorial (Washington, D.C.)
Also in the nation’s capital on the National Mall is the powerful Korean War Memorial. Its 19 stainless steel statues, each about seven feet tall, depict 14 Army soldiers, three Marines, one Navy sailor, and one Air Force pilot. Covered in ponchos to shield them from the weather, they stand among strips of granite, a symbol of Korea’s rice paddies.
Created by sculptor Frank Gaylord, the statues are just one part of the memorial that was dedicated in 1995 to honor the 5.8 million Americans who served during the Korean War, including 36,574 who died, 103,284 who were wounded, and 8,200 who are missing or buried at sea. The site also has a Memorial Wall, United Nations Wall, and Pool of Remembrance.
Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation (Paris, France)
During World War II from 1941 to 1944, about 200,000 people were deported from Vichy, France, and sent to Nazi concentration camps. To commemorate their lives, a crystal shines for each at the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, located behind the Notre Dame in Paris on a former morgue. Built by architect Georges-Henri Pingusson, the dramatically lit narrow passageway has the tomb of an unknown deportee on one side, as the tunnel leads to a single bright light.
Anse Cafard Slave Memorial (Le Diamant, Martinique)
When a ship carrying enslaved peoples didn’t anchor properly in Martinique one fateful day in 1830, it plowed straight into the Black Mountain, drowning many of those on board. In their honor, 15 white stone statues, each more than eight feet tall, stand together in a triangular pattern at the site, Anse Cafard. Cap 110 Mémoire and Fraternité sits on a hill in the southwestern corner of the island, overlooking the Caribbean Sea.
Old Slave Market of Stone Town (Zanzibar, Tanzania)
In a sunken square in Zanzibar’s Stone Town stand life-sized statues of enslaved peoples, shackled together with nowhere to turn. The artwork symbolizes the horror they faced in one of the world’s last slave markets, which operated through 1873. The sobering depiction is near a tree that was used for whipping — now with a marble circle encased in red to symbolize the blood of the slaves.
The site is now home to the Christ Church Cathedral, but it will always serve as a memorial to its haunting past — and continues to seek a bridge to a stronger future. “Creating a heritage center at the site of the former Zanzibar slave market is an opportunity to reaffirm the principles behind the abolition of slavery and to celebrate diversity and tolerance,” the World Monuments Fund said of the location.
Australian War Memorial (Canberra, Australia)
Completed in 1941, the sandstone Australian War Memorial in Canberra is one part shrine, one part museum, and one part archive. But it comes together to honor all the Australians who have died in service and those who have served in war.
Beyond the entrance, marked by two medieval stone lions damaged during World War I, the Commemorative Courtyard opens up into a tranquil space, with a Pool of Reflection and Eternal Flame sitting below 26 sculptures that represent the people and animals of the country.
Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma)
Empty chairs — 168 of them, to be exact — stand in a field, arranged neatly in nine rows (for the nine floors of the Federal Building). Each represents a person who was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing on April 19, 1995.
The Outdoor Symbolic Memorial section of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum provides one of the most heart-wrenching depictions of the emptiness left behind by unjust violence. Two gates also stand in the area: the 9:01 gate as the last moment of innocence before the bombing, and the 9:03 gate as the moment when the healing began — a sign that even in tragedy, there is hope.
Memorial to the Victims of Communism (Prague, Czech Republic)
At the bottom of a concrete staircase at the base of Petřín Hill in Prague stands a bronze figure of man. Behind him is another man, missing part of his torso, and behind him is yet another man without an arm and only a portion of his face. Over the course of seven men up the stairs, each one decays in a different way, representing the physical suffering of political prisoners under the former communist regime of Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989.
The Memorial to the Victims of Communism, designed by Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek and architects Zdeněk Hölzl and Jan Karel, was unveiled in 2002. It also features a running strip between the seven figures, detailing the weight of the impact and putting into perspective the toll the tumultuous period had on the country, as 205,486 were convicted, 248 were executed, 4,500 died in prison, and 327 died during illegal crossings.
Bubanj Memorial Site (Niš, Serbia)
During the Nazi terror that swept through much of Europe during World War II, the concentration camp at Niš took thousands of innocent lives. As the story goes, one prisoner raised his fist into the sky in a brave sign of resistance as the firing squad came his way.
To honor that, Yugoslavian sculptor Ivan Sabolic designed three fists at the Bubanj Memorial Site to remember the men, women, and children who perished here. Also on site is a panel with the words of Niš poet Ivan Vučković: “From the blood of Communists and patriots, fists of revolt and warning, fists of the revolution, fists of liberty. We were shot, but never killed, never subdued. We crushed the darkness and paved the way for the Sun.”