New thinking about historical monuments is embracing inclusivity—and ambiguity.
In America, monuments have been coming down. A movement to remove Confederate statues from public places was set off by Dylann Roof’s terroristic murder of black churchgoers in June 2015, and controversy hit fever pitch in August 2017, when white supremacists marched in Charlottesville to protest the city’s plan to remove Confederate monuments. Other monuments have been challenged, including a statue of Christopher Columbus in New York and one of Philadelphia’s former mayor Frank Rizzo (widely resented in the black and gay communities)—while cities ponder renaming streets and other facilities bearing the names of slaveowners or racists.
Behind the headlines are wider questions: Who gets commemorated? Who decides? Who’s been left out? Should the materials and forms of monuments somehow show that historical perspectives are multiple and shift with time?
“We’re increasingly aware that monuments and memorials have a lot of power; they are significant forces that shape and direct ideas about, you name it, race, class, geography, region, history,” says Erika Doss, professor of American studies at Notre Dame and author of Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America.
“I think we’ve always known that, but now there’s so much press being given to them—and it’s a different kind of press. One hundred fifty years ago there were lots of articles in the papers about new monuments: here’s one to Lincoln, here’s one to Washington. But what wasn’t in that press coverage was, here’s how people feel about that.” Today, says Doss, public response is an integral part of the stories that are told about monuments, memorials, and public commemoration generally.
The most ambitious recent result of this shift is probably the Monument Lab project—the brainchild of a Canadian’s encounter with Philadelphia.
Vancouver-born artist Kenneth Lum came to the cradle of American independence five years ago to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. He wandered the city looking at its many monuments and wondering, as he puts it, “why there was a statue of department-store founder John Wanamaker on the grounds of City Hall but only a plaque on the house where Billie Holiday grew up.” He began thinking about what he calls the “negative history” of Philadelphia—the people and events that aren’t commemorated, or are commemorated inadequately. “I wondered if we could do some kind of ‘negative history festival,’” he says.
Lum was told that he should get in touch with Paul Farber, an historian and curator at Haverford College, who has been exploring many of the same issues.
“Ken and I realized we were both interested in what was present and what was missing in the cultural landscape,” says Farber. And beyond that, they shared a desire to democratize the role of the monument in determining the nature and future of the city. As Farber puts it, “We wanted to put the power of historical reflection into the hands of the public.” The result was a very ambitious and long-term version of Lum’s “festival” concept.
Under the sponsorship of Mural Arts Philadelphia, Monument Lab unfolded in two phases. In the spring of 2015, a sculpture by the late Philadelphia artist Terry Adkins was erected on the City Hall grounds, as a focus for harvesting ideas from the public. Some 35,000 people visited the site, and 455 filled out forms answering the question, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” Public conversations took place all over the city as well.
In September 2017, temporary public works by Mel Chin, Tyree Guyton, Hans Haacke, and 19 other local, national, and international artists, curated by Farber and Lum, were unveiled in Philadelphia squares and parks—each intended as a catalyst for thought and response. During the project’s nine-week run through November 19, the public was invited to write and draw more ideas for monuments at pop-up labs at the various sites, while numerous public events, from discussions to street parties, took place throughout Philly. All the proposals will be scanned and exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and data from them will be analyzed and incorporated into a catalogue and an official report to the city.
Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, cites a colleague who calls the Lab “a remix of the monument.” Golden hopes that that remix “will help people think about the city’s future—and that they’ll make a very tangible link between their thinking and the art. That they will feel the art-making was catalytic.”
“A Level of Sophistication”
The first batch of ideas from the public was full of surprises for the organizers. Farber notes that some of them “pulled the rug out from under us in terms of what a monument has to be.” One respondent, he says, proposed a monument to abolitionist and suffragist Lucretia Mott. “‘Raise the money,’ it said, ‘then never build it; Mott wouldn’t want a monument. Give the money to progressive, feminist, and anti-racist causes.’ That was the level of sophistication we found.”
The 21 artists in the second phase of the project challenged the bronze-statue-on-a-plinth paradigm in multiple ways. Mel Chin’s work, Two Me, consisted of two statueless plinths about 20 feet apart, accessible by ramps. Any passerby could mount the ramps and stand on the plinths, “celebrating themselves,” in Walt Whitman’s words, as living monuments. “But if you looked to the side,” says Chin, “you saw the other plinth, with the other person on it.”
It’s Chin’s way of engaging a great American paradox: our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, begins with “We the people,” while at the same time we honor rugged individualism. “When you were up there, you had the choice of celebrating yourself or feeling the we,” says Chin.
By the simple act of covering a familiar war monument in a park in the Germantown neighborhood with reflective material, Philadelphia artist Karyn Olivier made it, in a sense, disappear—“absorbing and reflecting everything around it,” she says.
For Olivier, that reflectivity not only made the park and its visitors the point of the monument; it threw the responsibility of commemoration back on the viewer. The original monument commemorates the Battle of Germantown, in which George Washington’s army tried to take Philadelphia back from the British during the Revolutionary War. “I hope I could make people ask, ‘What was that monument under the mirrors?’ while at the same time the mirroring made them realize that the struggle for freedom continues today,” says Olivier, who is African-American. “I, the viewer, become the monument; I become the protector of our freedom.”
Olivier asks: “How can monuments reveal complexity, humility, and resolution? How can they reveal the fact that we are still forming who we are? Maybe they could always be ephemeral. Maybe there could be thousands of them. Maybe they could simply never be finished.”
In New Orleans, the Paper Monuments project is actualizing Olivier’s vision of ephemeral, multiple, ongoing monument-making that engages with current struggles for justice. Led by community organizer and researcher Suzanne-Juliette Mobley and architect/graphic designer Bryan Lee Jr., the project is connecting scholars and activists with artists to create posters and flyers that tell untold stories from the city’s three centuries. The paper monuments are then distributed to many locations around the city.
Paper Monuments was born when Mobley, Lee, and others involved in the movement to take down Confederate statues in the city asked themselves what was going to replace them. “One thing we knew was that we didn’t want another old white man on a pedestal,” says Lee. Inspired in part by Monument Lab, “we started to develop an idea that would sort of de-lionize individuals and diffuse memory throughout the neighborhoods.” They developed their ideas further at the Banff Centre in Canada. In New Orleans, it turned out, people in city government were asking some of the same questions, and Mobley, Lee, and colleagues were invited to present their plan to the city, garnering enthusiastic support.
An important part of telling less-known stories, says Mobley, was not replicating the city’s tourist-focused mainstream narrative of colorful exceptionalism—the idea, as she puts it, “that New Orleans is unlike any other city, is disconnected from the main threads of American history.” The Paper Monuments stories deliberately link the city’s history with wider currents like the slave system and the civil rights movement. One poster, for example, tells the story of the 1954 boycott of festivities honoring one of the founders of the city’s segregated school system; another recalls the outpouring of grief at the funeral of André Cailloux, an African-American Union Army officer who died in an assault on a Confederate fort upriver from New Orleans.
Scaffold, Sam Durant’s ambiguous allusion to judicial hangings in American history, was erected by the Walker Art Center in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden in May 2017, and taken down in June after a firestorm of objections. One of the hangings Durant’s work alluded to was the execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862, still a painful subject in the Minnesota Dakota community. Because Durant had failed to consult with that community, the work became a symbol of how easy it can be for even well-intended non-Natives to ignore contemporary Native sensibilities when representing Native history.
Making certain that Native voices are heard not only in the creation of monuments, but in the shaping of North American cities, is the goal of the Indigenous Place Making Council (IPMC), a Canadian group that first took shape in the offices of Brook McIlroy, an architectural firm with a conscience. It’s an alliance of designers, activists, scholars, artists, and businesspeople that consults on placemaking projects Canada-wide, making sure that authentic Native traditions are respected and contemporary Native voices are heard.
Brook McIlroy has been involved in designing a number of structures that embody the legacy and continuing presence of Natives in Canada, including the Gathering Circle, a public space on the Lake Superior waterfront of Thunder Bay, Ontario, that alludes to traditions of council, inclusivity, and peaceful coexistence. The space is sheltered by a canopy constructed in line with Native traditions of bentwood basket-making.
Ryan Gorrie, an architect in the firm’s Winnipeg office, a member of the IPMC, and a member of Sand Point Anishinaabek First Nation, led the Gathering Circle team, which was careful to consult with tribal members in the area in developing the design. For Gorrie, the issue of how to remind Canadians of the Native presence is all about the avoidance of cliché.
“Most of the familiar bronze monuments to Natives are statues of scouts helping non-indigenous explorers and traders,” he says. “It’s crucial to stay away from stereotypes like that and really engage Native communities to bring out the ideas they want to embody.”
Gorrie uses a word fully in line with new thinking about monument-making. “Ambiguity in the design is important,” he says, “so that the image of what is indigenous is not distilled down to a caricature or a one-liner but is something that has deeper, multiple interpretations.”
Does ambiguity make for confusion about the meaning of monuments? Not for Gorrie; instead, he says, it can, and should, create curiosity and a desire on the viewer’s part to explore the monument. As if echoing Karyn Olivier and her complex sense of reflection, he adds: “I like public art that is layered, experiential. Instead of being viewers, people become experiencers; they become a part of the art, the landscape, the architecture.”
A Third Way?
“I think most people assume a sort of permanence for monuments and memorials,” says Erika Doss. “And yet we live in such an impermanent, transitory world—values, expectations, and understandings of the world are constantly changing.”
Among these thinkers, then, it seems that a double purpose has emerged for the monument: to clearly represent and celebrate formerly ignored or undervalued people and communities—and yet, at the same time, to avoid the old paradigm of monumentalizing, which presents single, permanent images of heroic figures.
Why is that approach a problem? Mel Chin has a ready answer. “Sometimes monuments are answers that cover up questions,” he says. In other words, a bronze statue of a heroic African American can create the false impression that we’re finally done with racial issues. “We remove the statue of the white slavemaster,” Chin says, “but what are we still enslaved by?”
The new thinking about monuments is opting instead for open-endedness, complexity, ambiguity, discussion, involvement—and impermanence—in an atmosphere in which, as Doss noted, the public is ready and willing to express its varied opinions about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of monument ideas.
While both Kenneth Lum and Paul Farber emphasize the strength and wisdom of many of the suggestions from the public that Monument Lab gathered, Doss warns of the artistic dangers of too much populism—not only because of the current climate of angry divisiveness in public discourse, but because of the kitsch factor. “Many of the public suggestions for the memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, for example, were just kitschy, schlocky. A giant teddy bear,” she says. “But the memorial ended up being a very good one because representatives of public art, architecture, and landscape design were on the committee with the people representing the public. And they had a conversation.”
It’s unclear how the relationship between monument and audience will evolve, but Paul Farber, for one, thinks that the “conversation” involved in the Monument Lab model—temporary installations by artists combined with plenty of opportunity for public input and comment—could be one continuing way forward for the making of monuments.
“We’ve traditionally had two ways of treating monuments,” he says. “Either they are meant to stay forever, elevated; or they are to be torn down. I understand the importance of both approaches, but we’re trying to envisage a third way: to open up the possibility of other forms of public history.
“In some cases, a substitution is needed; there is something or someone missing that should be present. But in most cases, it’s something else: an invitation to ask questions about the landscape, and the country, all around you.”