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Alfred Weidinger / CC 2.0

Professor Ken Lum was inspired to tackle questions of representation when he moved to Philadlephia in 2012. 

The largest outdoors art project in Philadelphia’s history is coming to the city in fall 2017, and Penn students have the opportunity to be a part of it.

The upcoming Monument Lab project will feature temporary monuments at 10 sites around the city designed by an array of 22 artists from around the globe. Penn Design professors David Hartt and Sharon Hayes will both be featured, as well as world-renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.

Penn professor and Chair of the Fine Arts Department Ken Lum said at the March 22 University Council meeting that most or all of the artists have some kind of connection to Philadelphia. They will each address one question: What is an appropriate monument for the current city?

Lum initially conceived of the Monument Lab after he moved to Philadelphia in 2012. He was inspired by the city’s history but felt the art didn’t reflect the contributions of some of Philadelphia’s greatest artists and musicians.

“I was struck by the very complicated layers of history that are kind of signaled by the various markers throughout the city,” he said. “I was also struck by the discrepancy in terms of who gets represented in art and who doesn’t, and the kind of hierarchies that don’t make sense in terms of the respective contributions of these figures to history.”

Lum discussed a story of when he noticed a plaque dedicated to jazz musician Billie Holiday on the grounds of City Hall, near a large statue of businessman and public servant John Wanamaker.

“That question in terms of who gets represented and who doesn’t get represented was the spur to the idea,” he explained. “What if it was an exercise where members of the public were asked their voice in terms of who or what should be recognized in the form of a monument. Monument Lab came around as a consequence of that.”

In a small pilot launch of the Monument Lab, Lum and his two co-curators designed a pop-up classroom exhibit in the courtyard of City Hall. During the exhibit, on display from May 15 to June 7, 2015, the Monument Lab team collected over 450 proposals from Philadelphians for monuments around the city. The responses and the initial Monument Lab have now inspired a city-wide project with a budget of over $2 million.

The finished monuments will be accompanied by socially interactive “pop-up laboratories” that will feature speakers addressing city and nationwide issues.

The project also provides an opportunity for students to get involved. At the University Council meeting Lum said that one or two students will be involved at every site.

Anita Allen, chair of the Provost’s Arts Advisory Council, called the Monument Lab “a splendid example of arts leadership at Penn.”

College senior Sofia Demopolos was involved in the Monument Lab pilot in the summer of 2015.

“[Co-curator] Paul Farber would always stress to me and the other interns that we should not ask people what the best monument to the city of Philadelphia was, but what the most appropriate monument to the city of Philadelphia was,” she said. “It did not need to be a celebration of some achievement, but was more about what needed to be talked about.”