Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg says she initially ordered 630,000 white flags when she created a public exhibit for the National Mall to commemorate American lives lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her vision was to place one flag on the Mall for every life lost, and to keep adding more to In America: Remember as the death toll rose. By the time the temporary exhibit ended its two-week run yesterday in Washington, D. C., the number of deaths had passed 700,000. The final number of flags was 701,133.
“I thought never would we use that many,” she told CNN’s Dana Bash. “I’ve reordered twice.”
In America: Remember, a participatory installation stretched from the base of the Washington Monument to the World War II Memorial, covering more than 20 acres.
Visitors could walk through the vast field of flags and stop at a table to “personalize” a flag with the name of a loved one who has died, along with a message about them. Volunteers also added names submitted online. It was one of the largest participatory exhibits ever mounted on the National Mall. Names and messages honoring more than 13,700 people have been posted on a website, inamericaflags.org, which lives on after the exhibit, and the installation was streamed online for the duration for those unable to travel to the nation’s capital.
One flag carried the name of a World War II veteran and musician who died at age 99. “He refused a ventilator, asking that it be saved for a younger person,” said the message on the flag.
Many of the messages lamented a loved one who didn’t get vaccinated. “You chose not to get vaccinated, now we mourn your loss,” another read.
When the exhibit first opened on September 17, there were 670,032 deaths recorded in the U.S. due to COVID-19. A large sign at the exhibit was updated every day to include the number of people who died in the past 24 hours.
“I check the numbers every day because it’s important that we honor those people we just lost the day before, “Firstenberg said. “It’s an incredible number of people.”
“What I didn’t realize was just how much emotion people would bring to this,” she added. “I created the art, but they brought the content, the stories, the sadness. Oftentimes, they’ll tell me this is the first time I’ve had a chance to cry.”