Maya Lin’s ‘Last Memorial’ Honors ‘What is Missing’

Maya Lin is best known for the stunningly moving, but astoundingly simple Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., that she designed while she was still in college in 1981. Now she has created another poignant memorial, albeit this time it is not honoring lives lost in wartime, but rather it’s attempting to honor the natural world, which is disappearing before our eyes.

Lin’s web-based multimedia memorial is called “What is Missing?” She has said the tribute to decreasing biodiversity is her “last memorial” and she also hopes it raises awareness about the current extinction crisis; she calls the multimedia “science-based artworks” a “wake-up call.” 

Lin, 53, has collected a multitude of natural sounds, videos, animations, and images to weave into the web-based memorial, almost creating a bank of the past and present beauty in nature. It’s a bit scary to think future generations may only see these glorious excerpts of the natural world on their computer screen on Lin’s website,

Maya Lin's memorial to biodiversity, called “What is Missing?” is a multimedia, multifaceted example of her characteristically “subtle” style.

The collection of auditory and visual art also includes installations all over the world that Lin hopes will continue to grow and change. 

The home page of the website memorial is a world map with color-coded clickable dots making up the world’s land masses. The map that automatically appears when the webpage opens is the “Map of Memory,”—the map of the past—a map that “gives an account of what we have lost in the natural world.”

There are three different types of clickable dots on the map: dots that take visitors to personal memories of the natural world that any visitor of the site can contribute; dots that “highlight historical and literary quotes that set up a collective memory of the planet and highlight abundance and biodiversity, giving people an idea of how wondrous the natural world used to be;” and dots that take visitors to core videos, timelines, and animations.

Through these collections of links and information, Lin is attempting to put together an “ecological history of the planet.” There are two more maps on the website, one representing the present and one representing the future, and they can be accessed by clicking on the “Time Travel” button at the bottom of the screen.

The “Map of the Present,” called “Conservation in Action,” was launched on Earth Day in 2012 and it highlights the actions conservation groups are taking to preserve biodiversity. The map also has three different kinds of clickable dots that make up the map: the first kind of dot links to stories conservation groups from around the world have submitted about their efforts; the second type of dot features stories of environmental organizations collaborating with Lin on the project; the third kind of dot takes visitors to core videos, timelines, and animations.

One of the many videos on the website personalizes tropical deforestation by showing how quickly famous urban parks would be destroyed at deforestation's current rate.

The third and final map, the “Map of the Future, is called “Greenprint for the Future” and will “imagine plausible future scenarios that balance human needs with the needs of the natural world.” This aspect of the memorial will launch on Earth Day 2013-2015.

Buttons at the bottom of the screen not only let visitors switch between the maps but also allow them to toggle between viewing the dots geographically (in map form) and chronologically (in timeline form). Another button at the bottom of the screen labeled “Save 2 Birds” presents a short, dramatic video. The video includes footage of exquisite urban parks around the globe with the words “Destroyed in 1 minute” (or 2 or 3 or 4 minutes as the destruction time varies for each park) underneath the name of each park.

At the end of the film, it becomes clear that these minutes indicate how quickly green spaces like Central Park and Hyde Park could disappear with the current rate of tropical deforestation. The short video asks the question, “If deforestation were happening in your city, how quickly would you work to stop it?”

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lin described one of the purposes of her characteristically “subtle” artistic “What Is Missing?” project, “We have actually forgotten how abundant the planet used to be and I think if I can pique your memory and make you realize how incredible biodiversity was in your own backyard, then maybe it is going to spur you to action, at which point we also have something on the Web site called ‘what you can do’ – simple things each one of us can do in our everyday lives.” 

“I am going to try to wake you up to things that are missing that you are not even aware are disappearing,” Lin told Yale Environment 360, “If I can get you to look at something afresh, maybe you will pay closer attention.”