They call Mount Rushmore the “Shrine of Democracy”: four presidents blasted out of the face of a granite escarpment in the Black Hills of South Dakota. For the artist Mel Ziegler, it’s literally a touchstone. In the mid-1980s, he and his partner, Kate Ericson, stopped there on a cross-country trip and returned home with the four rocks off the rubble at the base of the mountain that would make up “From the Making of Mount Rushmore,” one of their signature works. “We knew we weren’t supposed to take them,” Mr. Ziegler recalled, “but there weren’t any signs or anything.” Ericson died of brain cancer in 1995 at the age of 39. But Mr. Ziegler, now chair of the art department at Vanderbilt University, has kept going back, collecting souvenirs he plans to use as the basis of some future exhibition.
His obsession fits the locale: For all of Mount Rushmore’s patriotic themes, tourism is its reason for being. The mountain’s 60-foot faces were the work of Gutzon Borglum, who led the team chiseling and blasting the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. An earlier commission, the Confederate memorial carved into the face of Georgia’s Stone Mountain, came courtesy of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Samuel Hoyt Venable, a Ku Klux Klansman. But Mount Rushmore carries no such baggage.
For Mr. Ziegler — who currently has an exhibition of 50 tattered flags, one from every state, at Federal Hall on Wall Street — Mount Rushmore and its souvenirs represent the democratization of memory, a transition from a time when travelers were so few they could just take something, the way he and Ericson had done. The curios he has collected from across the United States are arrayed in vintage wooden bookcases that line a studio at his Nashville home. With the help of our smartphones, he gave me a virtual tour. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Is everything in these…