Rittenhouse Square on Sunday was balmy and alive. Families strolled through, children tore along the paved paths, students chatted and others sat quietly, flipping through books on the benches. In one corner, a white tent stood, bustling with activity. 

The tent was one of 10 sites in various Philadelphia neighborhoods that is part of the ongoing Monument Lab, a “public art and history project” that revolves around a central question, “What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?” Each site hosts two “prototype monuments” by artists to spark conversations and gather ideas and feedback. In the curators’ own words, Monument Lab seeks to “build civic dialogue and stoke historical imagination as forces for social change”. 

A “monument” according to the Oxford dictionary is “a statue, building, or other structure erected to commemorate a notable person or event” and/or of “historical importance or interest.” Monuments used to be seen as markers of specific moments in history, inadvertent by-products of man’s insatiable need to enshrine and remember. However, in recent years, there has been a fundamental shift — we no longer see monuments as passive relics of the past, but active aggressors in today’s conversations on race, gender and politics. 

One of the “prototype monuments” at Rittenhouse Square was an innocuous, seemingly unremarkable viewfinder, which stood just in front of the white tent. However, when one looks through it, one sees images from historical events which, through the use of augmented reality technology, have been superimposed onto present-day Rittenhouse Square. Named "The Built/Unbuilt Square" and created by artist Alexander Rosenberg, the viewfinder — usually “a traditional device often placed on the edge of important monumental vistas” — now allows people to journey through “historical landscape(s)” and events. 

When I looked through the viewfinder, I saw archival, black-and-white images of a protest on gay rights, a small squadron of armed soldiers from the Civil War, wild animals and children in front of a hopscotch chalked onto the pavement. I looked up, away from the viewfinder and again saw present-day Rittenhouse Square — smartphones, speakers and all. The past is superimposed on the present and evokes questions for the future. What has been lost? What do we choose to remember? How do we want to remember Rittenhouse Square for the future?

As a volunteer at the lab handed me a piece of paper to “draw” a proposal for a monument, I realised how difficult it is to decide. What should be memorialised? It is tempting to pay homage only to things we personally care about — literary greats, accomplished women from Philadelphia, sports heroes. What then do we make of notable people, histories and accomplishments outside of our own experiences? Yet, what is a monument, without being at least a bit specific and personal? If we refuse to make decisions, the only monument we can ever have is one vague, plain sign that says, “This monument commemorates everyone and everything that ever happened in the city of Philadelphia.”

For students living in Philadelphia, Monument Lab presents an opportunity to become meaningfully engaged in the ongoing national dialogue on monuments. Penn is listed as a “Lead Monument Lab Partner” on its website and also offered a course entitled "Monument Lab: Public Art and Civic Research Praxis" in the Fine Arts department this semester. This shows that Penn believes it is important, as an educational institution, to become involved in this city’s initiative in reshaping how we memorialize. 

The politics of presentation and representation are complex and therefore it is crucial that as many voices as possible are heard. Monument Lab made me consider the nuances of public memory. We should jump at these chances to engage in these conversations around Philadelphia. This way, we act not only as students at Penn, but also residents of the city in which we live.


SARA MERICAN is a College sophomore from Singapore. Her email address is smerican@sas.upenn.edu. “Merican in America” usually appears every Monday.

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