Reassessing iconography on campus

Joann Mitchell and Frederick Steiner chatted with Penn Today about the Campus Iconography Group’s report, published this week.

Bronze sculpture of a large bust of a Black woman on Penn’s campus surrounded by autumn leaves
Simone Leigh’s Brick House, the first campus sculpture of and by a Black woman, was recently installed on campus. (Image: Eric Sucar)

When it comes to displaying art on campus, as well as the decisions to name places, programs, and endowed funds, Penn has had well-established procedures, which also have applied to the removal or renaming of certain historic iconography. Charged with improving these policies, and establishing new ones, was the Campus Iconography Group (CIG).

Formed this past summer by President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli, the group’s goal was to provide advice on steps to take to ensure the placement and presence of statues and other prominent iconography on campus better reflect the University’s “achievements and aspirations to increase the diversity of the Penn community.”  

Rendering of Maya Lin’s art installation, a large-scale treelike sculpture with branches reaching upwards through atrium open ceiling.
Newly commissioned artwork by Maya Lin will soon be displayed in the Penn Pavilion. Pictured, artist rendition tentatively titled “DNA Tree of Life” by Maya Lin. (Image: Courtesy of Maya Lin Studio)

The CIG, co-led by Joann Mitchell, Penn’s senior vice president for Institutional Affairs and chief diversity officer, and Frederick “Fritz” Steiner, dean and Paley Professor at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, this week published its report. Chock-full of initial recommendations, two action-guiding frameworks will serve as a new basis for removing, replacing, or renaming iconography—the visual images which surround us—as well as for adding iconography. Also to be developed is a central website or other accessible repository that will provide these details in full to anyone who wishes to view them, suggest improvements or updates, or get involved in other ways.

In addition, the interdisciplinary Group suggested further recommendations for strengthening the University’s commitment to inclusion, including enhancing diversity within the Design Review and Art Committees and creatively incorporating acknowledgment of the deep ties between Penn’s campus lands and the Lenapehoking People. The full report is available in Almanac.

Mitchell and Steiner joined together on Zoom for a Q&A with Penn Today just as the report was being finalized. We discussed the CIG’s report and some of its findings, why this work has been so rewarding, and their hopes for the University and its iconography in the future.

Talk to me about both of your roles in the Campus Iconography Group, and tell me about the team of folks from Penn who worked with you on it.

Joann Mitchell (JM): The president, provost, and EVP [executive vice president] appointed the members of the group consistent with their practice of ensuring that it was inclusive of different viewpoints and voices. We were also asked to focus on outreach and consultation so that we had a broader set of views than just those of CIG members. We had lots of lively and spirited conversations within the group. I think Fritz [Steiner] once said there were no shrinking violets in the group, and everyone was able to express their views and offer perspectives. We also spoke with people who have expertise and deep understanding of the issues who enriched the group’s discussions.

Fritz Steiner (FS): It was an extraordinarily collegial group. I think that was due in large part with Joann steadily steering the committee forward. People really listened to each other. I don’t want to make a cliché, but it was a bit like a Quaker meeting—there was a refreshing lack of hierarchy, and openness, within the committee. Joann was appointed as a chair because of her central role in the University around these issues, while I serve on the Design Review Committee and the Art Advisory Committee. Those committees are responsible for much of the iconography on campus.

Were you meeting on Zoom most of the time?

FS: Yes, and we met frequently.

JM: Always in our little boxes. Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented face-to-face interactions. I think the only interaction that was not virtual was one that Fritz and I had when the Brick House was being installed. We saw one another that day, but other than that our discussions and those of the CIG were virtual.

The CIG was created as a result of recent events, including the renaming of Penn Commons, the research of the Penn & Slavery Project, and increasing calls from faculty, students, and staff that Penn’s portraits, statues, and other iconography better reflect the University’s commitment to diversity. What else made the timing so pertinent, given that this became a priority even in the middle of a pandemic?

FS: There was the even bigger backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement and the groundswell around racial justice, especially among young people, but even more broad than the young people, about reckoning with one of probably the two original sins of our country. It’s important that Penn plays our part in that reckoning.

Penn obviously isn’t the only university or organization to have these important conversations this past year. Talk to me about how you consulted with other colleges doing similar work, or other organizations in Philadelphia. Why was this so important?

JM: We weren’t the first out of the gate and benefited enormously from reviewing the reports of a number of committees including those of Yale, Brown, Stanford, the University of North Carolina, the University of Texas at Austin, and others. We also had the advantage of having Fritz on the committee who had led a similar effort at UT Austin. So we were able to lean on his expertise and experience. The CIG had agreed from the outset that if another institution had ideas and a rationale that would work at Penn, if possible, we would adapt it for our campus.

FS: I had been on a similar committee at the University of Texas at Austin, which was responsible for making recommendations for the removal of Jefferson Davis and other confederate statues that were in the heart of the campus, and related iconography.

Reading through the CIG’s report, Penn—for years—has clearly had strong and very involved policies, protocols, and committees that have governed the design and naming of buildings and outdoors spaces, as well as acquisition and placement of art, including statues and contemporary works. These rules have also evolved throughout the years (for instance the new Naming Policy in 2019-20). There are also strong, established rules in place for requests to deaccession artworks. One of the first issues that became apparent for the group was that there’s a lack of awareness of these policies and protocols. Was this surprising?

JM: I don’t know that I was surprised, given that Penn is such a large and complicated University and that there are so many things to know about how it works and functions, but it did strike me that this was a real opportunity to elevate some of the different policies and practices that already exist. Not necessarily so that they could remain as is, but to increase awareness of their existence.

The report mentions that a website will be created to make the information more accessible. Is that something that has been developed or will be developed soon?

JM: The CIG focused on recommending frameworks for action, and there are a lot of operational matters, including creating the website or other repository, that will need to be addressed.

The CIG recommended a set of criteria when making decisions to move, replace, or rename something from campus. Why is it important to ‘carefully and systematically,’ as is noted in the report, consider such ideas/to follow these recommendations? What is the hope or goal of this specific criteria the group is recommending?

FS: Let’s consider Ben Franklin. We developed a framework, and the idea is one would go through the framework to assess a person, the whole person, and especially the whole person’s contribution to Penn. When you look at the criteria and Franklin, we think about how he owned two slaves—who he eventually freed—and the Pennsylvania Gazette ran advertisements and other notices about the slave trade, but Franklin did change very dramatically. He became perhaps the most prominent abolitionist of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and he also was president of one of the most prominent abolitionist societies during his time. When compared with others from his time, Thomas Jefferson, for instance, who understood that slavery was wrong … but he owned slaves until he died. Whereas Franklin didn’t. Arguably, Franklin changed, and changed in a demonstrably positive way and made a difference as well. Then there’s also a link to the University of Pennsylvania, which is also undeniable and central to the University. George Whitefield, whose statue on campus was removed, had really nothing to do with Penn and was an active promoter of slavery. So there’s a wide gap between George Whitefield or even Thomas Jefferson or even George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Our framework for assessment is designed to make such analyses.

JM: At the end of the day, Penn is an educational institution that should make decisions that are thoughtful, well-reasoned, and based on evidence, which is what the frameworks call for. We recognize that people are complicated. Mores and values change, so a framework that is flexible and offers an opportunity to make difficult and contextualized judgments is needed. The decision about removing or replacement should not be made lightly, but after review and deliberation.

There is also a new framework the group suggests for assessing proposed additions to campus. Talk to me about this and why it is so important.

FS: As Joann mentioned, several universities have looked at criteria for removing things, but we think we’re the first to look at a framework for adding iconography. How do we rethink potential additions and assess their positive contributions? Hopefully, our framework can inspire other universities to act on being more inclusive in their iconography.

JM: This is an opportunity really for faculty, staff, students, and alumni to participate. It also calls us to think about ways other than statues or portraits that can lift up some of the people who had been unknown or under-recognized for the contributions they made to the University and the country, or the world for that matter.

The report also recognized the importance of acknowledging the ground on which the University campus is located.

FS: If slavery is one of the two original sins of our country, the treatment of native people is the other. Understanding that this land was inhabited by a people and a culture and acknowledging that is an important element of our recommendations.

JM: In addition to acknowledgment, this is an opportunity to offer educational programming about the Lenapehoking People. As a University, we seek to increase knowledge about cultures and people. I think we should take full advantage of this opportunity to learn more about the Lenapehoking People.

What are your favorite spots on campus/artworks on campus? What do you get most out of these spaces?

JM: Fritz probably knows what I’m going to say.

FS: Well, Brick House, I think, Joann and I would both agree that that’s one of the most wonderful additions to the campus in recent time. It’s breathtaking. And I think it also helps to connect the city to the heart of the campus.

Why has this work been so rewarding for you?

JM: Imagery and iconography matter to the feel and the ethos of a place like Penn. We should continue the work of finding ways to have the University’s artworks better reflect its commitment to inclusion, diversity, and equity. There is still much to be done, but we’ve made enormous progress. To play a role in helping ensure that the artwork and built environment are more consonant with Penn’s values was a very rewarding experience. The CIG was able to make recommendations that will be helpful in that regard now and in the future.

FS: We also learned a lot from the different focus groups, organized by PennPraxis and Monument Lab, that we had with faculty, staff, and students, as well as the Faculty Senate. They had lots of ideas and energy, and I hope that the participants see their ideas in the recommendations and in the report, because they were most helpful to us.

What’s next?

JM: The president, provost, and EVP are already setting about some of the work that will be necessary to ensure that the CIG’s recommendations are not only accepted but implemented. It may take time to operationalize the CIG’s recommendations, but I believe that will begin soon.