Art project asks community to envision a monument for Philadelphia

A monument can take many forms to honor or commemorate a significant person, place, or event.

Next month, a public art and urban research project in the Center Courtyard of City Hall will ask people to think about an appropriate monument for Philadelphia at this moment in time, and what form a 21st century urban monument might take.

The project, “Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia,” is led by Ken Lum, professor and director of the Fine Arts Undergraduate Program in PennDesign, and his colleagues A. Will Brown from the RISD Museum and Paul M. Farber from Haverford College, who is also a 2005 graduate of the College. Monument Lab is based at Penn Institute for Urban Research (IUR) and is a collaboration with PennDesign and the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy, with major support from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.

The project will be on display from May 15 through June 7.

Understanding the role of monuments in a modern city is a way of understanding a city’s values and how a place commemorates and memorializes important people or events, says Lum. Monument Lab intends to spark dialogue and questions about the issues that matter most to people in the city.

“There needs to be a setting for some serious dialogue by some of the creative thinkers in the city,” says Lum, who is also a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow. “At this moment of transformation and growth, not all transformation and growth is necessarily positive; there’s some negative aspects to it.”

Monument Lab includes two parts; the first is an outdoor sculptural installation in City Hall’s central courtyard designed by the late, award-winning artist and Penn Professor Terry Adkins. Lum describes the installation as a slightly abstract configuration of pews and an eight-and-a-half-foot-high blackboard that is meant to invoke a 19th century schoolroom inclusive for all, including African-American students.

“It’s a work that makes us hopefully think about these questions of education [in Philadelphia] by tracing it back to a utopian moment in terms of what was possible,” Lum says of the sculpture. “It doesn’t have the effect of protestation, but has the effect of making us think about these questions in a deep way.”

The second component of Monument Lab is a makeshift pavilion that will feature seating and a platform on which a roster of speakers will take turns having wide-ranging discussions about issues facing Philadelphia. Two creative thinkers will speak at noon every day. Speakers include Nathaniel R. Popkin, co-editor of “Hidden City Daily;” John Jackson, dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice; Jane Golden, executive director of the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program; and Connor Barwin, a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We’re interested in a wide range of people who are really players and thinkers about this place,” Lum says.

Eugenie Birch, co-director of Penn IUR and the Lawrence C. Nussdorf Professor of Urban Research and Education in the Department of City & Regional Planning at PennDesign, says this project fulfills the mission of Penn IUR and is a way that art can inform important discussions about public space.

“Artists, of course, can come in and talk about it in a different way than social scientists and historians,” Birch says. “[Monument Lab] really does contribute to our mission at Penn IUR, which is to bring attention to urban focused-research and practice at Penn, in the city, in the nation, and around the world. This will contribute to that mission very substantially.”

During the run of Monument Lab, Lum and others will be polling passers-by for their opinions, and collecting data at computer stations, which they will turn into an elaborate digital chart of views after the project is completed. While Adkins’ monument will only stand through June 7, Lum hopes this kicks off a much bigger project in either a biennial or triennial form that tackles hard questions facing Philadelphia.

“I see it as a platform for all kinds of dialogue,” Lum says.

Monument Lab