Art & Design

Monument Lab: A City-Wide Art Museum That Asks Us To “Leave Fingerprints”

September 13, 2017 | by Nathaniel Popkin


Monument Lab proposal. | Photo: Steve Weinik, Monument Lab, Mural Arts Philadelphia

Editor’s Note: Today begins an autumnal treat in Philadelphia (among many), Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Monument Lab, spread across 12 public spaces, from A and Indiana Streets to Washington Square. This year’s festival follows on an inaugural project, in 2015, that engaged civic leaders, observers, and everyday folk in brainstorming new kinds of monuments for Philadelphia, in other words, answering the question, “How should we tell our story, Philly?” This is a brilliant question to ask in this era of heightened civic consciousness, the struggle over immigration and belonging, and just as cities across the nation are actively second-guessing the representation of history through historic monuments. (In Philadelphia, this conversation accelerates on September 26, with the installation of a memorial commemorating the 19th century civil rights leader Octavius Catto, the first public sculpture in honor of an African American civic leader in the city.) This year, as we reported earlier on these pages, artists have been asked to interpret the question, “What’s an appropriate monument for Philadelphia today?” and their installations across the city will be used to get residents and visitors thinking about this question. All fall you can roam the city, experiencing the art, and reflecting on the question yourself. Monument Lab fellows will be there to ask you to record your visions.

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin caught up with Monument Lab inventor Paul Farber. Their conversation, VIA email, follows. For detailed information on Monument Lab’s 2017 festival, click HERE.

Nathaniel Popkin: Why, in your mind, is this a transformative moment in the U.S. for the consideration of monuments? Clearly, by asking (which you and Ken Lum and other Monument Lab organizers began to do in 2015) “what is an appropriate monument for Philadelphia today?” Philadelphia is one or two steps ahead of the rest of the nation in the consideration of this question, but something has clearly come alive in our civic and national consciousness. How did this come about?

Paul Farber: We are clearly at a moment of reckoning when it comes to our monuments. Its a moment, however, not cooked up merely in the past few months. This open and critical conversation is built on decades of groundwork by artists, activists, scholars, and students who have questioned the status quo of public memory. More recently, over the last five years, Black Lives Matter activists, feminist organizers, and queer social movements have been at the forefront of pushing our monumental landscapes and historical practices—doing so out of urgent practices of memorial and civic action toward greater forms of democratic belonging.

The context of Philadelphia profoundly inspired this project. Its more than a backdrop; its our soul and infrastructure. I was born and raised here, my co-curator Ken Lum is new to the city but sees it with such clarity and care, I swore he was from here. And many of our team members similarly share a deep love for the city, and a desire to see it evolve with more justice and more representation.

Our city’s storied collection of statues, sculptures, and murals all spoke to us as monumental forms. But early on, we asked ourselves, why do certain figures rise to the status of deserving statues, while others are honored in other ways? Why do some stories haunt or lurk in memory, but not deemed as historical learnings? What hierarchies—especially around race, gender, sexuality, national belonging—are unspoken but nonetheless in operation? How do we turn to Philadelphians’ ideas to look for other monumental expressions that stake out presence and power in public spaces, without marble, bronze, or concrete.

Karyn Oliver’s The Battle Is Joined in Vernon Park. | Photo: Michael Reali, Monument Lab, Mural Arts Philadelphia

NP: In 2015, with the temporary lab installed in City Hall courtyard, Monument Lab produced lectures and conversations on the question of an appropriate monument for the contemporary city and hundreds (thousands?) of people responded with their own ideas. How did those ideas inform this year’s Monument Lab festival? Did they inspire the artists you’ve chosen to build temporary monuments in public squares around the city?

PF: First and foremost, they pushed us as we imagined the infrastructure and strategy of the project. The proposals, for example, offered complex takes on the ways people identify with their own neighborhood culture, and reads boundaries that separate us. Reading them was like reading a beautiful, candid, and haunting historical text in one. Whether it was site selection or our own internal planning, those monument proposals shaped our thought process and imperatives. Thanks to our research director, Laurie Allen, and her team, we also greatly expanded the research process: hiring more researchers, students, and meaning makers for valuing this growing database of public creativity and criticality.

We carefully engaged with our collaborators at Mural Arts Philadelphia who were a touchtone as we planned for the exhibitions’ infrastructure and curation. Monument Lab installations blend with the monuments and murals that already exist.

In terms of the artists, each invited participant was given a packet of information regarding the research from 2015, and a few really drew on the data gathered in meaningful ways. Emeka Ogboh ran the transcripts of the feedback we received through “sentiment analysis” software to assess civic moods, before handing them to collaborator Ursula Rucker, who based a poem on them for their piece, Logan Squared: Ode to Philly. Marisa Williamson ended up collaborating with one of the public participants, Gabrielle Patterson, a talented artist and animator, who engaged analogous issues of African American History hidden in plain sight for the interactive map game Sweet Chariot. Patterson is also now working with us at our Washington Square site.

Logan Squared: Ode to Philly by Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh is a sound poem monument installed on the Skyline Terrace of the Parkway Central Library. | Steve Weinik, Monument Lab, Mural Arts Philadelphia

NP: As you state in the summer Monument Lab program guide, “Philadelphia is a city full of monuments and memorials.” This may be an understatement. Philadelphia was probably the first American city to recognize the power of monuments: to signal the city’s sophistication in the eyes of the European world and to establish political unity after the Revolution. Charles Willson Peale built (ultimately with his own funds) a Triumphal Arch on Market Street to signify the dawn of a new age and he assembled a portrait gallery of American heroes across disciplines (scientists, generals, political men) and across the political spectrum, demonstrating that in a republic differences get worked out in the political sphere, not through war or dictatorship. Of course, since then most monuments were erected by elites. A few immigrant groups, like the early Italian colony that commissioned a statue of Columbus for the 1876 Centennial Worlds Fair, and African Americans who did the same for Richard Allen in 1876, have managed to represent themselves, and some labor unions were able to memorialize workers martyred during strikes. City Hall itself is covered in memorials. So what propels us, particularly as Philadelphians, to take it upon ourselves to build monuments? And how does Monument Lab take this instinct and deepen it beyond identity or institutional politics or sentiment?

PF: I think we take it upon ourselves to build monuments because want to have a hand in shaping our legacies—and recognize the challenges in doing so. We want to learn from the past, but can be overcome by traumas and wounds, even those handed down to us generationally. Sometimes we do it with a heavy hand, reinforcing the bigotries and shortsightedness of our lives; other times we do it with grace and reflection.

Monuments offer an aura of permanence, of belonging, of future protections, but their installation promises none of these things. Instead, they trade in civic power and pride in the present. They speak to the moment they are conceived and then continue to evolve with they times in which they endure.

Your mention of the Richard Allen monument from the 1876 Centennial is one that I think about often. The full, elaborate marble structure that was imagined and paid for by communities of color was pushed aside by the organizers. Eventually only the bust of Allen was displayed, just days before the closing of the fairgrounds. What was “appropriate” then was determined by arbiters who upheld anti-black practices and sentiments. For the Centennial, a supposed celebration of national spotlight and commemorative festivity, reading the gaps is as important as reading the content. Nonetheless, now, we have a Richard Allen statue on the grounds of Mother Bethel AME, a mural on 38th and Market, and he is now recognized as a foundational figure in this city’s history.

I wouldn’t say Monument Lab’s artist projects and creative research process aim to move beyond identities and institutions. Instead, we want to engage them with more compassion, more candor, and more creativity. This is a collective study, to understand the multitude of ways that history is not frozen in statues or behind display cases, but is an animating force in the city.

Mel Chin’s Two Me invites the public to pose as living monuments in the courtyard of City Hall. | Steve Weinik, Monument Lab, Mural Arts Philadelphia

NP: Many of the Monument Lab installations this year explore specific themes from Philadelphia life, culture, and history. Which of these monuments do you think will have the power to transform our sense of ourselves as a city or alter the narrative as it’s normally told?

PF: We learn from and believe in our artists—with deep respect, gratitude, and awe in what they have envisioned for their respective works. They have done their homework, they have depended their practice while thinking through their work in Philly, and they have endured through a challenging process in which there is both great excitement and no certain paths for this sort of outdoor exhibition.

It is hard to choose, but two that stand out for me that speak to both monumental histories and absences: Duane Linklater’s In Perpetuity, a neon sign on the banks of the Delaware at Penn Treaty Park, citing the Lenape response to the intended length of the historic treaty founding Philadelphia—“as long as the creeks and rivers flow, and while the sun, moon, and stars endure.” Linklater is an Omaskeko Ininiwak from the Moose Cree First Nation in Canada. Reading this as a flickering sign, renders the statement poetic, especially because Linklater’s young daughter handwrote the lettering. But it is also profoundly haunting and reminds us we are situated on lands marked both by an intended peaceful treaty, as well as land theft and violence against Indigenous people on a monumental scale.

Sharon Hayes’ If They Should Ask consists of a sculpture of empty pedestals, lined with the names of nearly a hundred historic women from the colonial encounter to the recent past. The pedestals are each “sourced” from existing monuments in the city. This piece similarly reminds us of an extreme lack of recognition: how in a city full of statues and major contributions to our democratic and cultural life by women, do we have an embarrassing lack of commemorative monuments to women? The answer is clearly not because there is a shortage of women deserving of such status, nor that there isn’t great pride in historic museums, markers, and sites honoring their legacies. Hayes pushed us, as viewers, by naming many of their names, and also making their absence present in Rittenhouse Square.

If They Should Ask by Sharon Hayes in Rittenhouse Square addresses the lack of women in Philadelphia’s public monuments. | Steve Weinik, Monument Lab, Mural Arts Philadelphia

NP: Which do you think will be most visually captivating?

PF: Ideally, we want this to be read as an exhibition—appreciate the intervention each artist is making, and navigate it to see resonances, tensions, and connections.

That said, everyone should visit Mel Chin’s Two Me in the courtyard of City Hall. It is a remarkable idea, one I have never seen before. Anyone can rise to become a monument, as an ADA-accessible ramp will assist your journey to the top of a pedestal. But to be clear: in addition to your moment of glory, you must look over and see another person on the other pedestal. You rise, and so did they. Chin’s intervention is fueled by the dueling ideas of individualism and collectivity driving American culture. The ambivalence of We the People. It is a form of visual democratic mathematics: ME + ME = WE. It won’t be complete, he says, until YOU rise to recognition.

NYC photographer Jamel Shabazz’s Love Is the Message is a tribute to African American veterans and their families. | Photo: Steve Weinik, Monument Lab, Mural Arts Philadelphia

NP: And last, the nature of this year’s Monument Lab reminds me of another weeks’ long citywide festival, the Hidden City Festival, which in 2009 and 2013 used art to entice people into places and spaces they’d never been. I sense this is equally important at Monument Lab, but maybe with a more practical impact, to get people thinking about how to shift the city’s narratives. What are you asking of the Monument Lab audience?

PF: We are asking visitors to navigate the city like a giant museum exhibition. Enter at PAFA’s exhibition hub, or at your local lab in a neighborhood park. Then, rather than just take in what you see, share your ideas and become participants in a collective study of the city. Leave fingerprints in the data. Offer new ideas that will help shape a future generation of monuments in this city.


About the Author

Nathaniel Popkin Hidden City Daily co-founder Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis.


  1. Davis says:

    More evidence that we have become so self-absorbed that community values and community ideal seem now to be replaced with Me Me Me.

    Sorry to be so cranky.

  2. Ann Doley says:

    I love the Monument Lab project. As a GED reading, writing, and social studies teacher, it presents an experiential opportunity for my young students to be actively engaged in history in their own backyard. I love the questions posed: what story (or stories) do we want to tell as a city, as a people, as a country? Who do we honor and remember? Who gets left out? Who should be on future monuments? Isn’t it akin to how history has traditionally been told/taught (often through the famous frequently white men approach) leaving out most everyone else? Yes, this is a great project taking place in our city. Thank you Mural Arts.

  3. Also Davis says:

    I have to wonder how much grant money went into Monument Lab. Their intrusion into Rittenhouse Square is, by me, intrusive and unwanted, unwarranted. The level of art within their “viewfinders” is so low and silly, it disgusts me. It is a mere amusement, and that is NOT art. Nor are their grandiose murals. It is sickening to think of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that goes into Mural Arts and the almost-garbage level of art that comes out. What does that teach the children involved? That they, too, can scam funders by having a clever concept and producing the lowest level of creative projects by calling them “art?”

  4. Jeff Carbine says:

    I found it interesting when you said monuments have a sense of permanence, belonging, and future protection, yet their placement does not guarantee any of these things. I used to think differently about it not until you explained it briefly and it really got my attention. What you said about memorial art monuments was really interesting to me.

  5. jeff carbine says:

    I found it interesting when you said those memorial concepts affected our thought process and imperatives, whether it was site selection or internal planning. I used to think differently about this and now it makes more sense. What you said about monuments was really interesting to me.

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