We are in Virginia, at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, father of Declaration of Independence. His home stands as a testament to his stature as an intellectual, statesman and innovator. We took the tour of the house and spent a couple of hours walking around the grounds. Finally we happened upon the small graveyard where he and family (and slaves) are buried. His grave sits at the lower end of the graveyard, under a large oak tree just as he had requested. It is a rather impressive monolith – but what really attracted my attention were the coins strewn around the base.
At first I thought this a rather strange way to pay tribute to the man. What relationship could there be between him and coins? I can’t say I’ve ever see money thrown on a grave stone before. In fountains, yes. On this trip, I’ve even seen coins tossed beside waterfalls, and in streams beds at certain points. but never on a grave. But then I thought back to the docent who was our tour guide. At one point she suggested we go outside after the tour and look at the rear of the house from the garden. This she said, is “the nickel view”. Ah! It came to me that in tribute to Jefferson and his presence on the U.S. nickel, someone had probably thrown one or several coins onto his grave. Others, perhaps misinterpreting this, began adding their own change. Over time, the meaning of the gesture has changed to something very different than what was probably intended. To me, it really doesn’t mean anything now.
But again, the meaning of the coins is merely a symptom of what I am after. A major theme of the project is the seemingly hard-wired compulsion we express to join in, and how it changes over time. In this case, the meaning becomes murky, because people haven’t agreed upon the meaning of the symbol (the coins). If everyone had gotten the idea, we would have seen nothing but nickels. Some may have gotten it, but others just threw what coins they had. They wanted to join the conversation, but they didn’t understand the language (the coins again). They essentially are conversing without knowing what they are talking about.