Monument Lab provided more questions than answers

Mural Arts Philadelphia’s temporary exhibition, Monument Lab: A Public Art and History Project, ended on November 19th. It asked: “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” PlanPhilly invited its readers to share their responses here, in our Opinion section, Eyes on the Street.

The Monument Lab ended last week. It is possible that it left having provided more questions than answers.

I work in the West Philadelphia area and asked neighbors, some are long-time residents, the question at the heart of Monument Lab: “What is the appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”

I shook my head at some of the answers.

Because the question of whether to remove the statue of Frank Rizzo had dominated the news at the time, most of the comments were either “send him to South Philly” or “get rid of it.”

But, when I asked questions beyond just the latest news, I was met with blank stares. How many monuments can you name in Philadelphia? In the country?

Few could name more than two, like Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Thinker. Personally, I think the MLK answer that many gave was just a guess: They knew there had to be a statue to him somewhere. Meanwhile, a monument to martyred civil rights leader Octavius V. Catto was unveiled in Philadelphia. But most of the Baby Boomers only remembered his Catto as the name on a long-ago demolished school for the “bad kids.”

There were a few who thought monuments like the “Freedom Tower” in New York City or monuments for citizens who died for freedom and democracy would inspire more conversation and respect than statues of past politicians and business leaders. One person suggested a talking tombstone to remember the lives of deceased, famous Philadelphians. That was a new idea to me, and an imaginative one.

How important are monuments today? Even though some of the heroes from the past have faded out of memory, the simple serenity of throwing pennies in the fountain for luck remains popular. (Although, personally, it’s the water I remember most, not the statuary.)  Yet, today’s youth seem to seek refuge from our troubling times more through technology or their own art, rather than public artwork.

I assume trying to imagine what the future holds for public art is what sparked Mural Arts to initiate Monument Lab. In my youth, graffiti was the major cultural moment. Our peace and power movements yearned to toss out the rhetoric of our past and did so on abandoned walls across the city, the nation, the globe. But, today’s culture, split into so many micro communities, finds so many differing values. The short attention spans of digital lifestyles follow us like shadows, so conversations about history have to be like billboards or go ignored. Books and statues are obsolete.

Everyone wants to be a star, remembered for their contributions and some time capsule of existence.

Personally, I prefer murals to monuments. I like the idea of grabbing a paintbrush and placing my blue or red or white on the wall. I would like to help create an artistic photograph of history and, of course, my opinion on the wall, spreading my contribution to the conversation like how “Kilroy was here” spread all across Europe during World War II. 

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