A Monumental Task

A new grant funds an effort to catalog the commemorative landscape.

By Jared Brey

In 2017, Karyn Olivier, a Philadelphia-based artist and associate professor of sculpture at Temple University, wrapped a 20-foot-high monument to a minor Revolutionary War battle in her neighborhood park in mirrored acrylic. It reflected back the image of whoever walked past it. It amplified a nearby sculpture of the 17th-century abolitionist Francis Daniel Pastorius. At certain angles, it disappeared altogether. Olivier was hoping the project would help her neighbors see the park in a new way, and that it would say something about “the fragmentary nature of how history is revealed to us.”

“How do we make monuments porous? How do we make them malleable?” Olivier asks. “What does it mean for me to become the monument?”

Olivier’s piece was part of a citywide exhibition, curated by the Philadelphia-based public art and history studio Monument Lab, which grew out of the work of Paul Farber and Ken Lum, two fine arts faculty at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design. The show asked Philadelphians to think about what would make an appropriate monument for the contemporary city. The exhibition unexpectedly coincided with the infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which formed partly in opposition to the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. In the three and a half years since, the conversation about America’s monuments—whom they commemorate, who builds them, and why—has only broadened.

Karyn Olivier’s mirror-wrapped monument (rear) was part of a citywide exhibition to collect ideas curated by Monument Lab. Photo by Michael Thomas/Pulitzer Arts.

In October, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced the Monuments Project, a $250 million effort to, according to its website, “transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces and ensure that future generations inherit a commemorative landscape that venerates and reflects the vast, rich complexity of the American story.” The program’s first grant of $4 million went to Monument Lab to, among other things, create a “definitive audit” of the nation’s public monuments. The foundation later announced that it had hired Justin Garrett Moore, a designer and planner who had led New York City’s Public Design Commission since 2016, as a program officer who would help shape the Monuments Project.

The 2019–2020 Public Iconographies project in St. Louis collected inventories of public monuments submitted by residents. Photo by Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia.

Paul Farber, the director and cofounder of Monument Lab, says the group will start by gathering data on official public statues and historical markers tracked by federal, state, and local governments and compiling it into a single database. The database will be made machine-readable so other groups and individuals can analyze it in various ways. But in addition to publishing raw data, visualizations, and charts, Monument Lab plans to present its findings, and the patterns they reveal about representation, in a series of publications, public events, and other formats that “don’t demand data literacy,” Farber says. He expects the team leading the audit, which includes Monument Lab’s director of research Laurie Allen and senior research scholar Sue Mobley, will learn something about monuments and public values just from observing how the quality of public records varies from place to place. “When you look at how data is kept about any subject, you don’t just understand what may be known or analyzed, but you understand what matters to the people who are responsible for that,” he says.

Statues depict historical figures, but they also reflect systems of power, and Philadelphia’s renowned collection of public art and monuments skews far whiter and more male than the city as a whole, says Farber. Of all the historical-figure statues in the city, for example, only a handful depict women. The national audit, which Monument Lab hopes to complete by March, is likely to show more disparities.

“We want this to be a source of information and a tool kit for people in their own communities who are looking to bring change to symbols and systems,” Farber says. “But I hope that in a decade we can look back at this and see it as outdated, because it has been a part of the national movement to update, evolve, and be more inclusive to our fuller history.”

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