If you visit any city or town and take a walk through a public park, chances are you’ll encounter statues, plaques, or place names that commemorate, memorialize, and honor people or events. More often than not, it’s a tribute to war and not to peace, and if there’s a statue, it’s rarely to celebrate a woman. When it comes to monuments and memorials, the art critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto perhaps said it best: “We erect monuments so that we shall always remember, and build memorials so that we shall never forget.” It’s a good starting point, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
In 2020, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the largest humanities philanthropy in the United States, pledged to spend a quarter of a billion dollars over five years “to help reimagine the country’s approach to monuments and memorials in an effort to better reflect the nation’s diversity and highlight buried or marginalized stories.” The Monuments Project—as it’s called—is the largest initiative in the foundation’s 50-year history, and it supports “the creation of new monuments, as well as the relocation or rethinking of existing ones.” Initial grants were handed out to existing projects, such as the expansion of artist Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles mural, one of the country’s largest monuments to interracial harmony. Another grant went toward the completion of the North Carolina Freedom Park in Raleigh, honoring the history of Black North Carolinians.
Architects and designers are also part of the Mellon-funded initiatives: Zena Howard, FAIA, of Perkins&Will is continuing the work of the late Phil Freelon with the Freedom Park; Theaster Gates and SCAPE Landscape Architecture are collaborating on a commemorative project at Tom Lee Park in Memphis, Tenn.; and MASS Design Group is collaborating on the King Boston memorial, sited on the Boston Common, where, in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr., “called on Boston to live by its highest ideals,” according to the memorial’s website.
A Monuments Project grant supports the Monument Lab, a nonprofit public art and history studio in Philadelphia, which audited—drawing from records of approximately 50,000 conventional monuments—the existing commemorative landscape in the U.S. Not surprisingly, the resulting report, “National Monument Audit,” found that 200 public monuments celebrate Abraham Lincoln in the U.S., with George Washington and Christopher Columbus coming in second and third, respectively. As the report states, “the story of the United States as told by our current monument landscape misrepresents our history.”
Building on that audit, the Mellon Foundation has awarded more grants that support thinkers probing the definition of a monument and exploring new approaches to commemoration. The foundation’s website describes how in Alabama and South Carolina, for example, Wideman Davis Dance is engaging histories of antebellum and post-industrial architecture that “invoke the legacies of slavery” through interactive dance-based performances. The company “involve[s] local communities and engage[s] live audiences in antebellum histories as told through dance,” reconceptualizing the form of a monument. In Lawrence, Kan., the Kaw Nation, community organizers, and the city are relocating a sacred stone (In‘zhúje ‘waxóbe)—a 25-ton glacial stone with spiritual and cultural significance to the Kanza people of the Kaw Nation—to its rightful location. The organizations are also building infrastructure and interpretive programming at the stone’s natural site, as well as in Lawrence at what will be the stone’s former site.
The Monuments Project addresses questions about how we make and shape our public spaces, and about whose stories are preserved and celebrated. It’s also creating new commemorations that will expand the American story—telling a more complete and complex story of who we are as a nation.
This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of ARCHITECT.