Monuments have been the source of ongoing debate, and the conversation is only coming more into the foreground. Just this week, the removals of a statue in Hong Kong marking the Tiananmen Square massacre and of yet another Confederate statue in Virginia have reignited the divisive discussion surrounding the symbolic power of monuments.

The reason monuments are the root of so much controversy and debate is because they are far more than the rigid objects made of stone or steel that they appear to be at surface level. Rather, they are living documentations of our values — but values change.

In the midst of this debate, Monument Lab is democratizing the discourse. Based in Philadelphia, the nonprofit public art and history studio works to cultivate important conversations around monuments, raising critical questions about their past, present and future.

“At Monument Lab we envision a society where monuments are dynamic and defined by their meaning, not by their hardened immovable and untouchable status,” they write in their vision statement.

Statues and monuments are ubiquitous. While we may not always stop to read their plaques and ponder their significance, they are still here, dotted across our physical and historical landscape. Despite their apparent silence, their voices are loud in our public memories.

Monument to New Immigrants by Tania Bruguera. Image courtesy of Monument Lab.

As we aim for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Sustainable Cities and Communities, which includes the protection and safeguarding of the world’s cultural heritage, we must also keep in mind the goal for Reduced Inequalities, ensuring that we consider the voices and heritage of marginalized communities in the process. Monument Lab not only exemplifies these goals, but puts them into action.

As part of their mission, Monument Lab collaborates with artists and organizations to showcase innovative alternatives to the types of memorials to which we are accustomed.

The Battle is Joined by Karyn Olivier. Image courtesy of Monument Lab.

For instance, Karyn Olivier's The Battle is Joined exists in dialogue with the past and present of Philadelphia's Vernon Park, a predominantly working class, African American neighbourhood. The installation, built from mirrors, literally reflects its own environment, including the people who move through it daily. It fills in the gaps left by most traditional monuments that remain ideologically fixed in the past.

"We will be reminded that this memorial can be an instrument and we, too, are instruments—the keepers and protectors of the monument, and in that role, sometimes we become the very monument itself," explains Olivier of her work.

In their National Monument Audit, a project that investigated about 50,000 monuments across the United States, Monument Lab critically engaged with the American monument landscape. Seeking to better understand the stories and motivations behind the thousands of statues that exist within the country, many of which are the source of fierce debate, the organization posed important questions about the meaning behind everyday monuments — from their accepted interpretations to their misconceptions to the downright falsehoods that they represent.

National Monument Audit. Image courtesy of Monument Lab.

Monument Lab defines a monument as “a statement of power and presence in public.” In a country where statues dedicated to enslavers coexist with the descendants of the enslaved, where the realities of systemic racism are routinely denied, it is high time that we reconsider exactly whose power and presence we are enshrining.

The work of Monument Lab’s team of artists, curators, researchers, educators, designers, writers, project managers and students is critical, as it is one step of many towards the equality upon which our nations were supposedly built.

In the words of Monument Lab, “By disrupting the status quo of how monuments are made, preserved, and interpreted, we hope to contribute to a future society defined by joy, regeneration, and repair.”

To aid in Monument Lab’s mission, you can donate here.

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