“We can’t change the past but we can change history.” -Dr. Kymberly Pinder
On Friday, March 29th, I attended Tufts University’s one-day symposium, “From Monument to Memorial: Space, Commemoration, and Representation in America Now.” Organized by the Department of Art and Art History, the symposium invited audiences to consider the role of public civic art in America and its current impact in our present political climate. Discussions on history, heritage, memory, and legacy were the undercurrents of each presentation.
Before the first panel began, Tufts University Art Gallery Director Dina Deitsch discussed the symposium organizers’ deliberate choice to host the event in Tufts’ Alumnae Lounge, a rather contentious space on campus due to the nature of its monumental murals. Commissioned in 1955, the mural’s east wall depicts the historical founding of Tufts on Walnut Hill, while the west wall shows Tufts students, faculty, and deans in an attempt to provide a “snapshot of student life” in the 1950s. Although there are at least fifty individuals painted between the two walls, almost all of the figures are white, Protestant men (except for a few white women). In fact, the only reference to Medford’s diverse population is a small image of the Isaac Royall Slave House, and the artists completely ignore the fact that Walnut Hill is a site of spiritual significance for the Mystic people.
The Alumnae Lounge murals do not portray the diversity of Tufts University, both past and present. (Stay tuned on updates concerning the murals; there is currently a working group determining how best to make the space more inclusionary. An announcement about the murals’ changes to come will be made in the next few months, according to Deitsch.) Considering the ongoing debates concerning the Alumnae Lounge, the space served as a fitting backdrop for the day’s discussants, with Deitsch’s speech further setting the tone for the issues at heart of each panel.
The morning session, “Local Histories/Contested Spaces,” was comprised of four panelists: Danielle Abrams, Professor of the Practice in Performance at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts; Kerri Greenidge, Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Tufts; Diana Martinez, Director of Architectural Studies at Tufts; and Kymberly Pinder, Provost of Massachusetts College of Art.
Each panelist discussed a controversial site, monument, or public art project and the importance of re-contextualizing it in its proper narrative. For instance, Danielle Abrams talked about her research concerning the segregated Lincoln Beach, an amusement park that was open from 1939-1964 in New Orleans. Today, Lincoln Beach is in ruins, and the nearby “whites only” Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park is often more referenced in the archives. Abrams is working to uncover these archives and prevent the complete erasure of Lincoln Beach from memory by collaborating with the last living generation of individuals who used to frequent the park and can speak to their experiences of segregation.
After the morning panel session, symposium participants and audience members had the opportunity to go on a two-hour guided bus tour led by Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge of Tufts’ African American Trail Project. The Trail Project is a collaborative effort among students, scholars, and community members, intended to interrogate Massachusetts’ white history. With an aim of placing greater Boston historical monuments in their proper context – that is a narrative that also includes the memory and experiences of “historic African American, Black Native, and diasporic communities,” the Project is bringing to light history that has long been negated. The sites on the tour span five centuries and five neighborhoods of greater Boston, including Somerville/Medford, Beacon Hill, Roxbury, and Mattapan. Some examples of tour stops include the Dorchester North Burial Ground, Bunker Hill Monument, Royall House and Slave Quarters, W.E.B. Du Bois House, the Charles Street Meeting House, and Marsh Chapel. Sites continue to be added to the growing list, and members of the public are welcome to suggest or edit any site.
Mabel O. Wilson, Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, led the keynote address, “Memory/Race/Nation: The Politics of Modern Memorials,” in which she discussed the events of the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia’s counter-protesters who shrouded their campus’ statues of Confederate figures in response. While traditionally University of Virginia’s campus tours spoke of Thomas Jefferson’s founding of the school and his legacy, now, thanks in part to increased student pressure, UVA tours highlight a narrative that was silenced for so long, one that acknowledges the approximately six hundred slaves that worked for Jefferson during his lifetime. Furthermore, a coalition of students and staff are “connecting the dots that have been missing,” with a forthcoming Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, a planned campus monument in the shape of a broken slave shackle, on which the names of 660 individuals are engraved along a timeline in a shallow pool of water in “an effort to humanize the unknown.”
As the symposium drew to a close, panelists left the audience with a series of questions to consider. How do we represent highly personal histories, and who do we represent in telling said narratives? How can we reconsider commemoration in light of recent violent events such as the Unite the Right rally in 2017? When should we preserve history, if at all, and what should we do with contentious spaces or monuments? For a room filled with museum professionals, artists, professors, trailblazers, and graduate students, these are timely questions for everyone to think about in our ongoing work of reframing histories.