Opening Remarks

During the Monument Lab opening on September 16 in the City Hall courtyard, chief curatorial advisor Ken Lum shared his reflections about the project. Below is a transcript of his remarks.

One of the most visited monuments in the City of Philadelphia is surely the Liberty Bell. Installed as a symbol of American Independence, it hangs silently in its glass pavilion while visitors line up to take in its presence. Its famous crack mars an otherwise coherent surface.  There were several attempts to repair the crack, but the crack only worsened. It is as though the bell refused to be healed.

Without the crack, the symbol of the Liberty Bell would align with many parallel functions involving bells: the start or end of a school day, a clarion call to action, perhaps the calling of the faithful to worship, or a death knell to announce to a village community the news of someone’s passing. With its crack, the Liberty Bell became a much more radical symbol—just as “America” itself was and continues to be a much more radical idea, despite the circus in today’s Washington. The crack renders the Liberty Bell ‘unringable’ and so it cannot produce what it was meant to produce.  Instead, the Liberty Bell produces something much more important—the idea of America in its fullest terms.

In the song Anthem, Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Cohen is saying that there is no such thing as a seamless surface—it is the seam, the fold, the stain, the fissure or the crack that matters most.  And the crack in the Liberty Bell is saying to us that the light can only get in if we have it within ourselves the courage and curiosity to let shine a light into the crack and peer deeply into it so that we can discover what is revealed in its shadowy recesses.

Philadelphia, the home of the Liberty Bell, is a city full of cracks, just as any place aspiring towards true democracy is. Some of the cracks are big and some are so small as to be virtually undetectable to the eye. The Liberty Bell haunts through its crack, for it is a wound that refuses to heal. For all the glorious language that make up the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the United States of America is a place founded on wounded bodies—the indigenous body, the black body, the indentured body, the gay body, the impoverished body and so many other Othered bodies.  The Liberty Bell may not be able to ring, but it speaks loudly to us from its glassy confines.

John Donne famously wrote “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”  By these words, Donne meant to exalt the importance of seeing ourselves as a are a part of humankind and not just as an individual. To Donne, any person’s death is a loss to all of us. 

At Monument Lab, we tried to make a project that tolls for the bodies of dead ancestors and for their descendants. Several overlapping questions are asked.  Where are the cracks in our city?  What do they look like? Do we have the collective and individual capacity let light into the cracks and learn from what the cracks tell us about ourselves? Monument Lab is a project about what the cracks of our city are trying to say to us if only we are willing to see and to listen.

Photo credit: Steve Weinik/Mural Arts Philadelphia

Ken Lum