Report to the City
Monument Lab Team
As a nation, we are in the midst of a long reckoning over our inherited monuments.
Across the country, after pressure from activists, artists, and students, city governments are grappling with questions of representation in the monumental landscape.The removal of several statues, including those dedicated to Confederate generals and other problematic figures has garnered attention and created a few sites of cultural repair. The memorializing of a handful of new figures in some cities adds chapters to local public histories. However, the untroubled, overwhelming status quo fills out the rest of our historical imaginations and civic spaces. We are haunted by the unresolved matters of the past and our inability to adapt, address, and remediate in the present.
Since 2012, the Monument Lab team has explored questions around public art, asking over twenty artists and hundreds of thousands of public participants from around the world simple yet profound questions about the history, function, and potential of monuments. The resulting conversations have helped engage and drive the public debate about monuments in Philadelphia and beyond. This participatory research has led to dozens of experimental, temporary “prototype” monuments that have tested the waters for new ways to learn about our past, confront the present, and interact with one another. Prototype projects such as Hank Willis Thomas’s All Power to All People, Sharon Hayes’s If They Should Ask, Michelle Ortiz’s Seguimos Caminando (We Keep Walking), and other installations by Monument Lab collaborators remind us of the role of social justice and solidarity in contemporary monuments. Additionally, the work of Monument Lab has grown alongside sibling projects and similar efforts in other cities, including Paper Monuments in New Orleans, A Long Walk Home’s Visibility Project in Chicago, and others.
We are pursuing this work at a time when cities are more openly recognizing that the monuments we have inherited are complex sources of history, emblems of civic power, and reflections of the disparity and despair of our times. No longer stuck in time, the concept of the monument is under revision. Rather than serving as symbols proclaiming the past as settled, monuments today conjure a new set of questions: Who are the figures who have earned status as heroes of history and what remains unspoken about their lives? How do we carry on given the weight of the past? How do we remember and toward what ends?
Last year, Monument Lab and our partners at Mural Arts conducted a citywide, participatory research project in Philadelphia. We worked with twenty leading contemporary artists to install prototype monuments in public squares and parks, and opened ten adjacent research labs staffed by research teams facilitating dialogue and gathering public proposals. The project was driven by a central question: What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia? Over 250,000 people engaged in person, over a million on social media platforms, and over 4,500 left their own proposals at one of the labs. It was one of the largest participatory research projects of its kind in Philadelphia.
Now that the research has been transcribed, mapped, and submitted to OpenDataPhilly, this Report to the City, a summary of findings written by the Monument Lab curatorial team, offers a reading and reflection on the immense creativity and critical energies demonstrated by public participants, as well as key findings from an examination of the data. The field of responses is a stunning, unprecedented glimpse into the historical imagination of Philadelphians. This was not about what is practical or about finding a solution to a particular problem. It was an exercise in turning to cultural memory as a source of democratic action.
We invite serious consideration of this archive of ideas as a collection of civic data, now available at proposals.monumentlab.com. We recommend that city agencies in Philadelphia and elsewhere take seriously both the ideas offered and the methods of inquiry: namely, asking participants to ponder the promises and pitfalls of public space while situated in public space while situated in public space and in conversation with one another.
The data produced through Monument Lab, whether viewed in spreadsheets or charts, resembles other forms of civic data. It maps the stories about the city around the understanding and experience of power. The difference, however, is that this data is purposely messy, with the fingerprints left on it, collected on handwritten forms. It is not meant to be polished, but instead is open for interpretation. The research proposals can be understood in myriad ways. We share findings here with a reminder that the data is open and available for analysis or possibility beyond these pages. Some of the proposals could most certainly be implemented as is and should be. Others could never be built, as they call only for advocacy or redress. Collectively, they speak to the relationship between the historical record and collective and individual memory—and the urge to demand proper recognition for a broader representative history of the city.
The Report offers summary findings as an attempt to honor and represent the thousands of participants who shaped this research. The four broad areas into which our team grouped these findings include rethinking common knowledge, craving representation, seeking connection with others, and reflecting on process and power, though there were many brilliant contributions outside these categories. This Report serves as an experimental case study and invitation to city government and cultural institutions in Philadelphia and other cities. The proposals recognize that “hidden histories” are not quite hidden. They are discussed, practiced, and valued by people all over the city, including in public squares and neighborhood parks. The challenge is how to listen to those conversations and come together to do something about it.
From the research outward to the broader implications of changing the monumental landscape, we contend as a definitive statement that any approach to dealing with, debating, or replacing monuments must consider a period of public imagination and inquiry. We have to reckon with our symbols. But we also must face the systems that perpetuate bias and exclusion.
The ideas that monuments are timeless, that they have universal meaning, and that they are standalone figures in history are truisms that we believe need to be challenged. Our intent is not to defeat the idea of civic monuments, but to invigorate them through new public engagement possibilities so that future monuments function as constantly activated sites for critical dialogue, response, and experimentation.
—Paul M. Farber, Ken Lum, and Laurie Allen