Every day, 180,000 pedestrians walk around or through Philadelphia’s City Hall. Paul Farber wants all of them to imagine what a new city monument would be.
He created the Monument Lab, along with curators Ken Lum and A. Will Brown, as a public engagement project in the courtyard of City Hall. After the centerpiece a sculpture that looks like a classroom on a platform — was unveiled on Friday, the public instinctively knew what to do with it.
“We’ve already seen in the few hours of the fence being down and the construction finished, people stop and sit down to reflect. Sometimes they are taking to one another, sometimes they take in the sight-line,” said Farber, a postdoctoral fellow at Haverford College.
The open-air classroom was designed by artist Terry Adkins, who died just two days after conceiving it in 2014. His rows of Jenga-like benches were built from reclaimed lumber at the Recycled Artist In Residency (RAIR) in North Philadelphia.
Adkins had called the courtyard of City Hall a “power spot” where governance, commerce, education, and protest collide.
“Even if a monument has value in our city, the idea that it is universal looks away from legacies of division, and difficulties,” said Farber. “What if we followed Terry’s lead and looked to monuments as places to balance that which divides us, and brings us together.” Farber points to the President’s House excavation monument in Independence Mall, with its display of the African-American staff enslaved by President Washington, as an example.
The Monument Lab is a two-pronged experiment: it creates a public, programmable space in the dead-center of the city to foster dialogues about the values that unify, and divide Philadelphians; and it collects data from the public about what a city monument should be. A shipping container in the courtyard has been converted into a polling place where passersby can investigate possible monument ideas and add their own. All are added to a data map.
Farber stresses that the Monument Lab is strictly a research project. After its three-week stint in the City Hall courtyard, it will not produce the hypothetical monument. It will, however, present the results of its public engagement process.
“This is an ideas festival,” said Farber. “One with intellectual aims and a desire to hold a public interchange.”