Monument Lab at City Hall in Philadelphia

You may not believe it, but you can erect a new monument in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

You may not believe it, but you can erect a new monument in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Well, maybe not literally (just yet), but one can tap into their creative instincts and decide what would make the ideal monument in the City of Brotherly Love. Philadelphia was founded in 1682 as a concept city for freedom and acceptance. Today, in 2015, the city is at a historical turning point in its advancement. As the population continues to grow, and many redevelopment projects alter the urban environment, the upcoming distinctiveness of Philadelphia is undergoing a modification.

Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia—an exciting new public history initiative taking place in the courtyard of City Hall every day from 12:00-7:00 p.m from May 15 to June 7—allows you to think of what type of memorial encapsulates the feel of Philadelphia and place it anywhere in the city you feel it would best fit. Monuments are used by people everywhere, especially Philadelphia, to find a way to move forward while also remembering the past. The idea of a monument stretches across many different plains, such as statues, parks, arches, plaques, historical markers, and even mosaics. You can stop by Monument Lab and fill out the anonymous form where it will then be entered onto DataPhilly so there will be easy access to the new “monuments” that have been built throughout the city and the countryside.

From Left to Right: Paul Farber, Laurie Allen, and A. Will Brown at Monument Lab.
From Left to Right: Paul Farber, Laurie Allen, and A. Will Brown at Monument Lab.

Co-Curators Ken Lum, Director of the Fine Arts Undergraduate Program at Penn Design; Paul Farber, Postdoctoral Writing Fellow at Haverford College; and A. Will Brown, Curatorial Assistant of Contemporary Art at Museum of Art at Rhode Island School of Design; and Director of Research Laurie Allen, Coordinator for Digital Scholarship and Services at Haverford College Library hope to create an ongoing project that will act as a creative and open focus for shared conversation about public art and public space, across many sites and platforms in the city.

“The idea for the project came from a few sources and moments. Ken Lum and I met to discuss Philadelphia Arts shortly after he moved here to begin his job at the University of Pennsylvania, just over two years ago,” states A. Will Brown. “We discussed a need for critical public art, of a temporary and more ephemeral nature, but critically pointed towards examining the city’s rich history as a means of thinking about the future of the city.”

From here, Paul Farber joined them and the project became a fully realized idea to create a temporary monument by a Philadelphia artist, a series of exploratory public sculptures and a research lab where Philadelphians could contribute their ideas for the future monuments.

“We really had this question pertaining to the idea of sites and memory,” says Laurie Allen. “Are there sites of memory that aren’t showing up? Such as people’s memories of an event of people looking toward the future. We want to make a tool that’s easily accessible for people within the field.”

Terry Adkins' classroom piece in the center of City Hall.
Terry Adkins’ classroom piece in the center of City Hall.

Terry Adkins, who was a colleague of Lum’s at Penn Design and who created the temporary monument that sits within the courtyard of City Hall, was the local artist chosen. He created a work, based on a 19th century design by Joseph Lancaster, which highlights a key crisis within the city: funding for education. The work is a hardware and painted structure that depicts an empty classroom and calls attention to the fact that there are numerous school closures (recently, just 24 public schools alone have closed their doors) and problems with funding in many school districts in the city. Adkins had a history of creating deeply thoughtful performative artwork for the gallery and for more public installations. His ideas about public space, education, performance and criticality suited the creators of Monument Lab’s interests perfectly. Adkins submitted his work in early February 2014 and suddenly passed away the same week on February 7 in New York City. If one looks at the exterior of City Hall, there are many beautiful sculptures and carvings, yet, in the courtyard, there is not one sculpture or structure—it is very plain.

“This space is devoid of public art,” Brown says. “On the inside of the building, the people passing through make up for the lack of sculpture. We wanted to drop something into the center of City Hall that reminds people of the moment of crisis the city is experiencing in terms of education.”

Monument Iconography created by Nilay Lawson, a Los Angeles artist and a key participant on Monument Lab.
Monument Iconography created by Nilay Lawson, a Los Angeles artist and a key participant for Monument Lab.

There is a Monument Iconography chart that is posted inside Monument Lab’s stand in the square of City Hall. The chart depicts all the different types of monuments there can be and was created by Nilay Lawson, the Director of Special Projects for Monument Lab.

In addition to Monument Lab, there will also be weekday talks every day from 12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m. and three Wednesday evening discussions by artists such as Alexander Rosenberg, Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya Levy from WE THE WEEDS, Zoe Strauss, and Kara Crombie proposing ideas for Philadelphia’s Five Squares (City Hall’s Center Square, Washington Square, Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square, and Franklin Square). All the events are free and open to the public. The co-curators of Monument Lab found these artists in a variety of ways.

“Zoe Strauss emerged as someone we all had a deep respect for as an artist engaged in Philadelphia and public space in particular,” says Brown. “Kaitlin Pomerantz and Zya Levy from WE THE WEEDS were recommended by a friend who attended PAFA and met Kaitlin in the process, loved the work WE THE WEEDS does with public space and botany, and we immediately knew they were a great fit for the project. I was introduced to Alexander Rosenberg when I wrote an article for Daily Serving featuring his work. Rosenberg’s engagement with history and social practice in Philadelphia, and as a member of Vox Populi were really exciting to us. Finally Kara Crombie came to us as an emerging, but established Philadelphia artist working critically with history often through video and animation, but also in other means and forms.”

Another view of the classroom structure by Adkins.
Another view of the classroom structure by Adkins.

There are many student workers who are involved with Monument Lab as well. Alliyah Allen, who just finished her freshman year at Haverford, is passionate about urban studies and computer science. This incredible venture allows her to perform work for both of the fields in which she finds fascinating. Allen stands by one of a few benches in front of Monument Lab with a bright yellow hand held tally counter, which she is using every time someone engages with Adkin’s temporary piece of public art. She also adds information to the live map they have of the city—which is the basis for the information that will eventually be posted on DataPhilly.

“So far, there are 150 forms we have and 672 people have engaged with the monument,” she says, keeping a close eye at the people walking past the structure.*

These are amazing numbers considering this is only the third day the lab has been opened.

“I’m excited that I get to perform research in both fields that I love,” Allen says. “I’m excited about connecting public art and public space.”

Allen serves as a vital force for the future of public history and memory in this country. Here, there is a student who is passionate about urban issues and trying to convey that message to the city of Philadelphia through this project.

Monument Lab is an incredible study on monuments and public art and the workers are asking for your help to create Philadelphia’s defining remembrance structure. It is definitely a unique opportunity for every Philadelphian to share a small piece of their personal history. So, join in on the conversation and stop by Monument Lab to participate in the fascinating study.

“ This project is as much about ideas as it is about anything else, creating a welcoming and meaningful, yet challenging, framework for ideas, from many people, to live together and create a network of thinking,” Brown concludes.

*From the time I visited Monument Lab to the time this article was posted, the number has increased from 150 to 170 forms.