Teaching Classical Pasts in New York City

In Fall 2019, I taught a course called “The Art and Archaeology of Royal Women in the Ancient Mediterranean” at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. While the course was grounded in studying the art and archaeology of what we know as the Classical world—today, popularly understood as white columns and whiter statues—its syllabus aimed to illuminate the diversity of the ancient world by focusing on the ways that women (albeit women related to powerful men) were subjects and patrons of public art and spaces. While the course materials focused on the pre-modern world, students also reflected on the absence of women’s stories in dominant historical discourses, and how such gaps relate to the observable lack of women represented in the monumental landscapes of present-day New York City. 

The commemorative practices of what we have come to know as the Classical world matter for the future of monumental landscapes in our present-day civic spaces. Recently, the Greco-Roman aesthetics of white supremacy and modern empire have fueled national conversations around the ethics of memory-work. From the historical ties between Classical architecture and the American Confederacy, to the recently proposed executive order to “Make Federal Buildings Beautiful Again,” white supremacists and state powers alike continue to deploy Greco-Roman traditions of memorialization in designing modern America. The authority of the Classical past deeply roots itself in contexts beyond North America, too, providing the aesthetic force and prestige for some of the world’s most prominent cultural organizations. Take, for instance, UNESCO, a global organization charged with the responsibility to preserve and protect the world’s cultural heritage: its official logo is an image that adapts the structure of a Greek temple. Such an image re-invests cultural value in Greco-Roman shapes, the political weight of which looms large in civic spaces across national borders.

Recent interventions in New York City have explicitly called out the thorny power dynamics of Classically-inspired modes of monument-making, especially in the United States. Take for example, Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, a large-scale statue of a black youth triumphantly riding a horse atop a high podium, which first displayed in the middle of Times Square and now lives in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019
Kehinde Wiley, Rumors of War, 2019. (Source: Times Square Arts)

Rumors is a tactical subversion of the ancient equestrian bronze atop a marble pedestal, an adaptation of the formal and material practices of heroic commemoration in antiquity and in the imagined ‘West.'

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, 161-180 CE, Capitoline Museum (Source: SmartHistory)

Likewise, Wangechi Mutu’s The NewOnes, will Free Us displays four free-standing bronze caryatid figures wearing costumes of high-ranking African women in the niches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s neo-Classical facade. The NewOnes operates within ostensibly Greco-Roman traditions of commemoration in order to bring forth novel forms of monumental practice.

Exhibition Page

Wangechi Mutu, The NewOnes, will Free Us, 2019. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. (Source: Met Museum)

With the recent works of Wiley and Mutu in mind, students in my course not only focused on the ways that royal women were represented in the ancient world, but also considered the lack of women and diverse forms of femininity in New York City. At present, less than 1% of the statues to historic figures across the city represent women. Female bodies commonly symbolize land or liberty instead. Such tangible absences within our public spaces mirror the visible gaps within dominant art-historical and historical studies of the Classical world, which, with some exceptions, often privilege the stories of men. Thankfully, artists, municipal workers, activists, and communities that live and work in New York City have started to address such lack of representation in our public spaces with initiatives like She Built NYC and the construction of new monuments to historical women like Shirley Chisolm. Nevertheless, such initiatives are still bound to commemorative forms in bronze and marble, of arches and pedestals.

What kinds of monuments, then, can we envision for New York City? How might we center women and conceptualize femininity within our shared civic spaces?


Adapted monument proposal worksheet for student projects.

To address these concerns through fresh perspectives, the students in my class created speculative monument proposals as part of their final projects. Two examples of these student engagements by Kate O’Mara and Callie Williams are featured below. The assignment was inspired by the public engagements and research of Monument Lab. Students were asked to create a monument to a royal woman from the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East for any public space in New York City. They picked their favorite royal women and experimented with materials and scale, imagining various modes of public engagement. This assignment allowed students to consolidate their historical knowledge in creative ways. Indeed, many of them thought beyond bronze and marble, and critically imagined monuments out of multimedia installations, projections, and even Metro cards. By mobilizing these speculative methods, our classroom participated in real conversations around the politics and processes of memory-work in New York City. 

All of the student projects are now online, featured together on a growing project called Women and Public Art, which shares its name with a new course that I am teaching this semester. This site will continue to feature exciting new student work and monument proposals in the coming months. Furthermore, the digital work presented on this site will seed a student exhibition at the Gallatin School.

This assignment is just one way in which, as a teacher, I have adapted the public engagement tools created by Monument Lab, and utilized them in the classroom, an important site for critically reading and reimagining monuments. Indeed, Monument Lab emerged from courses taught by Paul Farber and Ken Lum in 2012, and continues to facilitate transnational dialogues about which histories monuments privilege, and what kinds of tools we need in order to center the values of equity and diversity within and outside the classroom. Moreover, the ongoing, student-driven projects draw out the complex ways in which the Classical past and our modern-day monumental spaces inform each other, and continue to politically and culturally entangle.

Student Monument Proposals

Our History of Musicianship by Kate O’Mara 


This monument is meant to disrupt the institutional space of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. More specifically, this monument called ‘Our History of Musicianship’ will be an animated projection displayed on the side of the David Geffen Hall facing out to the street. The projection will appear starting around 5pm and will be turned at 11pm every night to maximize the points where the most people will be around the hall and able to engage with the monument. Given the nature of projection, the monument will not be able to be seen very well in the day time, so there would be no point in keeping it up prior to nighttime. When turned on, the projection will consist of an ensemble of female-identifying people playing lyres, and this image will take up the entire space of the side wall. The figures will be simple black outlines of female bodies and instruments, and these musicians will be moving as if they are playing their lyres in harmony. For community engagement, a discussion of if these figures should represent real female classical artists from the past, and if so, who these musicians should represent will be held and voted on. Projection artists will adapt to the choices of the community accordingly.

As well, speakers will be placed at the bottom of the wall playing lyre ensemble pieces in accompaniment to the projection. This music will begin as the projection appears to be heard by concert-goers walking into the hall for evening performances and as they exit as well. Another way to include the community’s voice in the monument would be, on select nights, to play recordings of current female classical musicians local to New York City. These recordings will accompany the visuals projected on the building just like the lyre music would do. Firstly, this creates a dialogue between the visual that represents an ancient instrument played by women from our past with the current female voice in perpetuating the classical canon now. Local classical artists would send submissions of their recordings to the monument’s producers with a statement of how they’ve seen themselves contribute to the ever-growing tradition of the classical genre. On these select nights, there would be gatherings to introduce the artist and celebrate her musicianship by the monument. Not only would this allow for engagement with up and coming artists who perhaps one day would hope to play with the New York Philharmonic and also get their work seen by a wider audience, but also inspire young female musicians.

This monument would be important for community engagement purposes, but also to disrupt current hierarchies and representation issues observed at The David Geffen Hall. This monument would provide as a starting point in critical discussion about such things as the name of the hall. Engaging with the David Geffen Hall is also important as it has such an acclaimed affiliation to classical music tradition, and if one can disrupt that space then perhaps fundamental change can start to be seen in classical halls around the city.

In regards to the hall’s name, David Geffen is a man who donated $100 million to renovations efforts of the hall. The name remembers a white man with much success in the entertainment industry. Spelled out on top of the entranceway to the hall, space can objectively be gendered as male. Inside the hall, this notion of diverse representation is not much better. While the musicians within the philharmonic have a roughly even ratio of men and women, the music programmed for these concerts is written by majority old male composers. As well, the administration offices of the philharmonic, which organize, regulate and control what these musicians are predominantly playing are male.

 Emphasizing the forgotten representation of women in the works played by the philharmonic, one must remember that women have had a lot of influence in the crafting and perpetuating of classical music, yet these histories are often not discussed. Specific elements of the monument work to shine a light on this specific issue. For example, the lyre, popularly remembered for its affiliation with male Greek Gods and musicians such as Apollo or Orpheus, has a forgotten history of female affiliation. This includes the female musicians discovered in the Royal Cemetery of Ur grasping beautifully decorated lyres as well as depictions of clay dancers from Minoan Palaikastro that include a female playing the lyre. The choice to have these females play this instrument on the projection is an attempt to ‘re-remember’ the feminine history of this instrument so important to the origins of classical music.

This also attempts to ‘re-remember’ that the importance of the musician as the body that keeps musical traditions alive. While the hall was funded by David Geffen and the administrative office’s work to keep the orchestra programming running, the musician must not be forgotten within the dynamic of this institution, especially the diversity of these bodies. Projecting these bodies, more specifically female bodies, up to the hall works against notions of institutionalization and hierarchies that participate in the administration and naming of the hall itself, and celebrates the diverse makers of the music that bring people to the hall each night.

Artemisia II by Callie Williams


In a city with more than 270 war memorials that account for more than a fourth of all the monuments in its parks, it may or may not be surprising that of all these monuments honoring groups and singular figures from various wars throughout history, only one is a female war hero. At West 93rd Street and Riverside Drive, a life size bronze statue of Joan of Arc stands upon a 6 by 30 foot pedestal between stairs entering into a part of Riverside Park known appropriately as Joan of Arc Park.

Interestingly, on the list of war monuments provided by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation’s official website, this Joan of Arc statue is not listed. This may be because she is not a figure who is part of American war history, but she is no doubt a historical figure of war. Also, the monument was commissioned and placed there in the midst of World War I, intended to be a symbol of solidarity between the United States and its ally France. Therefore, the monument was technically produced as a sort of American war monument. This dovetails back to the question, why does the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation not acknowledge this statue, who is also a woman, to be a war monument? The issue of gender and recognition within public statuary in New York City has been argued at length and I don’t intend on elongating that discussion here. What I want to point out is the significant underrepresentation (or total lack thereof) of statues commemorating historical female figures of war.

This is why I am proposing the installment of another statue along Riverside Road within Joan of Arc Park that honors a woman from history whose narrative reflects the tenacity and courage of women in the context of war. This statue would be a recreation of the legendary trophy of Artemisia II erected of herself in Rhodes after her shrewd navy victory over the Rhodians. In accordance with the statue of Joan of Arc created by female artists Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, this statue too will be produced by a woman. The ultimate goal would be to install more monuments along this path honoring women who have played prominent roles in military history. For example, Deborah Samson of the Revolutionary War and Sarah Emma Edmonds of the Civil War, who like Joan of Arc, disguised themselves as men, thus becoming some of the few female veterans of early American wars. There are a plethora of options, as women have continuously broken gender barriers within both the US military and around the world.

The specific statuary of Artemisia II will be a bronze imitation of the marble statue of her recovered from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus. It will have the same height and dimensions (height of 8.7 ft, width of 3.6 feet). In one hand she will be holding a spear, and in the other, a shield like those used by soldiers of the Achaemenid Empire to emphasize both her military strength and Persian identity. However, the statue will be surrounded by marble walls, a reference to the Rhodians’ attempt to enclose her trophy and hide it from the public eye. These walls will actually be made of a row of parallel angled stone panels. This means that depending on what angle you look at it, the statue will be visible inside the walls or is completely obstructed by the walls encasing her. This serves as a commentary on perspective when studying history. You have to look at all angles to see or uncover the truth. Patricia Kim highlights the concept of carceral heritage and attempts to erase the events and legacy surrounding some figures in history. However, history can never be entirely erased, and with the assistance of historical narratives like that by Vitrivius, the image and legacy of Artemisia can continue to grow outside the confines of the Greek walls that intended to hide her. Lastly, this perennial growth will be symbolized by growing Artemisia plants within and outside the monument’s walls.


Patricia Eunji Kim Director of Communications and Assistant Curator, Monument Lab