Building A Platform for the Next Generation of Monuments

 In 2017, workers use a crane to lift the monument dedicated to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney after it was was removed from outside Maryland State House, in Annapolis, Md. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

In 2017, workers use a crane to lift the monument dedicated to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney after it was was removed from outside Maryland State House, in Annapolis, Md. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

We are in the midst of a reckoning over our inherited monuments. This involves both clashes at local sites around the country and a widespread re-envisioning of what it means to build monuments. This set of clashes and conversations is, in part, a byproduct of our current electoral moment, but its currents run far deeper. For example, the removal of confederate monuments in Baltimore, Chapel Hill, New Orleans, and Memphis, among other sites, was driven by years of intervention and organizing, especially driven by activists of color for racial justice. Intersectional feminist, queer, and environmental activists have also called out the connections between public symbols and representative structures of power.

Traditionally, monuments have conveyed an aura of permanence and prestige. Currently, the momentum behind this movement to remediate monuments is pushing city governments, public art offices, historical societies, and museums to look into their own processes, collections, and values of public engagement. Who are the historical figures honored with public statues? What systems and processes have produced the monuments we have inherited? Which figures and narratives are missing from prominent places of memory? How have artists and activists bridged this gap by pushing for broader forms of representation and recognition? In effect, monuments have always been under revision, and their transformations align with movements for justice, belonging, and equity.

As we experience this ongoing moment of intensity and uncertainty around public monuments—especially those that symbolize the enduring legacies of racial injustice and intersectional modes of social inequality—we are reminded that we must find new, critical ways to reflect on the monuments we have inherited and imagine future monuments we have yet to build.

Over the last several years, Monument Lab has organized several major public art interventions that asked: What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia? We just released our Report to the City, a reflection on nearly 4,500 public monument proposals gathered during our 2017 exhibition with insights into how public participants imagined new monuments. Now, we’re taking that question nationwide with a new website and podcast devoted to creating a platform for conversations about art, history, and public space, as well as a new fellows program to support existing monumental projects around the country. We also will continue partnering with collaborators in Philadelphia and other cities on new exhibitions, an augmented reality app, and continued participatory research projects. Welcome to the next phase of Monument Lab!

Paul M. Farber (@paul_farber) is the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Monument Lab. He also teaches courses in Fine Arts and Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Paul Farber