Conceptualizing new monuments

I wrote in April about the value of personifying monumental leaders through monumental statuary. Specifically, I was urging Penn State do be more imaginative in its approach to its campus in honoring its most significant personalities.

Since then, Monument Lab came across my radar. It’s a “public art project seeking ideas for a new Philadelphia monument.” Jennifer Lynn writes:

Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia” is a collaboration of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy; the Mural Arts Program; the University of Pennsylvania; and the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

The project, which will set up outside City Hall in May with an array of installations, public events, and talks by artists, will try to enlist the public to talk and think about a new monument for Philadelphia.

“An ideal monument is one that would reflect our core values and visions for the city,” said Monument Lab co-curator Paul Farber.

What Monument Lab seeks to do sounds great. I’m generally skeptical of projects that define themselves with one-cent phrases like “core values and visions,” but Classicizing Philadelphia’s take helps me understand the vision better:

Few people engage the classical world in conversation any more.  Classicism and its monuments seem to reflect the values and monuments of an elite.  The conversation with Greece and Rome belongs, it seems, to the past, and to the people who imagined the Second Bank, or the statue of McClellan next to City Hall, or the Latin inscriptions that are in every sense over people’s heads on Philadelphia streets.

Monument Lab invites a different kind of dialogue: what do we want to say about who we are now?  As their guiding question puts it, “What is an appropriate monument for the currentcity of Philadelphia?” …

A monument for 21st century Philadelphia, he suggested, should look beneath the classical veneer to the core underneath, and the work of the people who made it.  The current city of Philadelphia wants to remember itself as a city made not only by a classically minded elite, but also by the people who made the bricks in City Hall.

I think that the most timeless monuments tend to be the ones that seek to convey knowledge in some way, usually through embodiment of a particular person or a monument that represents a person or foundational story.

The Washington Monument does this as well as the Lincoln Memorial. They’re timeless, they tell stories, and they invite admirers to understand themselves better as a result. On the other hand, Chicago’s Millennium Park Cloud Gate I think does none of these things.

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