Who Deserves a Statue — And Who Never Did? Philly’s Monument Lab May Have Answers

Philadelphia is in the midst of a messy reckoning with the relics of its past. Do Paul Farber and his team of civic architecture superheroes hold the key to figuring out who should be yanked off their pedestals — and who should replace them?

monument lab

Paul Farber of Monument Lab. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Just last August, a 34-year-old West Philadelphia painter named Joy Taney went door-to-door in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood and made an unusual request. She wanted people to support a campaign to get her family’s name removed from street signs throughout the city.

It’s kind of stunning, right? To want your name off a street sign. But when you’re the social-justice-inclined great-great-great-great-niece of Roger B. Taney, the U.S. Supreme Court justice best known as the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, it makes a little more sense that you might throw your lineage behind the growing movement to see Taney Street disappear into the history books. That’s the goal of the Rename Taney Coalition, a local group of organizers, founded in June 2020, that’s hoping City Council will change the street name as soon as this year.

What’s harder to make sense of is why Philadelphia has a Taney Street to begin with.

In 1858, City Council decided to rename Minor Street, a small strip of land in Fairmount, as Taney Street. Just a year earlier, Roger Taney — who had no local ties — had, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, unequivocally subverted Black people with the assertion that they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

There’s very little in the historical record about what prompted the city to take this action with this street at that time. While it’s assumed the name change was an homage to the judge, even that is ultimately unclear. Were leaders making a bold statement endorsing Taney’s decisions on race? Were politicians courting the Catholic vote by honoring the court’s first Catholic justice? Was it an ill-considered last-minute addition to an effort to clean up duplicative street names after the 1854 consolidation of the municipalities that now make up Philadelphia?

All of that has been lost to time. Yet for the past century and a half, Minor Street has been Taney Street. Taney Street has since extended through various neighborhoods, and thus Roger Taney has become embedded in the landscape. To wit: An adjacent baseball diamond in the Fitler Square neighborhood is named for Taney. The youth baseball team that practiced there became known as the Taney Dragons. And that’s how, in 2014, a team of young Philly baseball players — led by a transcendent Black athlete named Mo’ne Davis — advanced to the Little League World Series wearing jerseys emblazoned with the name of a man whose legal opinion was so ruinous, many scholars believe it led to the Civil War.

The prevalence of that name lends credence to the idea that this guy and his opinions must have been pretty important at some point in time. Which makes the idea of changing the name feel more difficult — almost anti-history. Efforts to change the name to better reflect how the justice’s decisions played out in the court of history have been slowed by bureaucracy and the challenges of consensus-building around what name should replace “Taney.” (Changing the baseball team’s name was a bit easier: They’re now the Philadelphia Dragons.)

All of which is to say that memorials and monuments matter — be they street names, statues, buildings or portraits. They signal the values that powerful people want us to internalize, and once erected, they tend to stay that way. Which helps explain why 163 years after an unknown somebody got the bright idea to rename Minor Street, it’s far from ancient history.

All this comes amid a profound national reckoning over the inherited symbols of our country’s heritage, as cities and towns grapple with statues of Confederate generals, Christopher Columbus memorials, and other complex remnants of our past. It’s a messy business: Some people believe that removing monuments erases history and denies opportunities for education and conversation; others say those statues transmit messages of power and were intended to be revered, so they need to be continuously reviewed for relevancy.

Enter Monument Lab, a Philly-based think tank/public art and history studio led by Mount Airy native and Penn alum Paul Farber that has made navigating the morass of reevaluating monuments the underpinning of its work. Farber and his band of fellow civic architecture brainiacs have spent the better part of a decade challenging communities to think about whom we revere and why.

Memorials and monuments signal the values that powerful people want us to internalize, and once erected, they tend to stay that way.

Farber and company prompt communities not simply to ask whether a monument should exist, but to dream: What else can we imagine? What could be here instead? As monuments have emerged as lightning rods for social change, Monument Lab’s influence has blossomed. Today, the organization is at a moment of real growth, made possible by a three-year, $4 million grant last October from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation — the first in Mellon’s larger $250 million Monuments Project to reimagine and rebuild commemorative spaces.

The work that came with the Mellon grant includes compiling a definitive national audit of existing monuments, the results of which are expected this fall. A companion project to the audit is an initiative called Re:Generation, through which Monument Lab will distribute $1 million to 10 grassroots artist teams across the country to build new ways to commemorate the past and tell important stories, with the projects to be up and running next spring and summer.

All of which means that Monument Lab, which has already been guiding Philadelphia and other cities in reimagining their public landscapes, is positioned to deliver its provocative ideas to a nation primed to accept the challenge. The funding has allowed Monument Lab to hire full-time staff, settle into permanent office space, and establish itself as the dominant player in shaping how Philadelphia and cities around the nation reimagine their public spaces.

“This is a part of our goal,” says Farber, “to make generational change in how art and history live in public.” It’s an ambitious undertaking. Can Monument Lab capitalize on the momentum generated by our country’s unrest to shift people’s thinking and make an impact that will stand the test of time?

The question of generational change couldn’t be more timely. The racial reckoning over the past year spurred the removal of controversial Confederate and Christopher Columbus statues around the country. In Philadelphia, it propelled the removal of the Frank Rizzo statue and the boxing-up of the Columbus likeness on Marconi Plaza; recently the legal battle over the plywood box covering came to a head when a judge ordered its removal.

That reckoning also made the work of Farber, 39, the co-founder and director of Monument Lab, and his team of curators, artists, scholars and students incredibly relevant. This is the moment Monument Lab was built for. The “work” they do is both straightforward and hugely esoteric — the kind of thing that’s hard to put in an elevator pitch. But think of it as one part public opinion poll, one part civic architecture town hall, and one part core-values exercise. By helping us question our assumptions about history, storytelling, representation and justice, Monument Lab attempts to show that the memorials we raise aren’t timeless and don’t have universal meaning — that those figures up on pedestals didn’t make history alone.

“History doesn’t happen because some dude rolls into town on a horse and looks off into the distance,” Farber says. “It happens because of people coming together across generations to fight for themselves and the others around them who make meaning of loss and find sources for inspiration. People make history. That’s why we’re as interested in what happens on the pedestal as off of it.”

Farber has a charismatic young-professor vibe — horn-rimmed glasses, mop of hair, practical prep-school style. It gives him a likable coolest-pundit-in-the-room appeal.

monument lab

Paul Farber, photographed on August 24th at the Art Museum. Photograph by Gene Smirnov

When Farber was an undergrad at Penn, he struggled to figure out the optimal way to come out to his track teammates. The bumpy process led him to co-found PATH — Penn Athletes & Allies Tackling Homophobia and Heterosexism. “I’m a queer person, a Jewish person and a white person. I knew I wanted to engage from an early age for racial and gender justice,” he says as we talk in Dilworth Park outside City Hall.

Farber likes to think of Monument Lab as a socially minded art project whose medium is “civic agency.” “It’s also,” he says, “about art being transformative — art being a force of truth-telling. It’s not art as flourish or adornment. It’s art as a vital force for building democracy and confronting legacies of division.”

So that, broadly, is what Monument Lab is. But where is Monument Lab? And what does it, you know, do? It has felt, at times, like it’s everywhere and nowhere and a little bit of everything, with a nomadic roster of art exhibitions, site-specific commissions, participatory research, student and artist fellowships, podcasts and publications.

“History doesn’t happen because some dude rolls into town on a horse and looks off into the distance,” Paul Farber says. “People make history.”

One of Monument Lab’s most effective and visible methods of engaging citizens in imagining a different public space has been to conduct what it calls “participatory research projects.” The team works with artists to build provocative, eye-catching temporary monuments, then asks passersby for reactions and ideas. It seems that the best way to challenge the notion that monuments are permanent is to present some that aren’t. Dozens of artists and hundreds of thousands of regular people have participated in these investigations of public art and history around the country. They are, in effect, asked to think like architects of the civic landscape and envision what monuments they’d like to see in the public space.

Salamishah Tillet, a Rutgers University-Newark professor of African American and African studies, collaborated with Monument Lab in 2019 for just such an exhibition, “A Call to Peace,” for which four local artists responded to the legacy of Gutzon Borglum and his epic 1926 Wars of America sculpture that resides in Newark’s Military Park. Borglum is known for creating Mount Rushmore and for being affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan. Passersby were invited to contribute their ideas for prospective monuments for the park. Tillet says of this process, “It’s so unique to activate the imagination and make people think about what’s possible. Monument Lab is aestheticizing democracy, in a way. It’s like the artistic version of a ballot box.”

The results of challenging public art, however, aren’t as immediate as an election’s. Take, for instance, the long, rancorous fight over the statue of Frank Rizzo, the controversial former Philly mayor and police chief who used “man of the people” populism and charisma, as well as violence, physical intimidation and racial politics, to wield power.

Paid for by private contributions from the late Rizzo’s family and supporters and given to the city, the statue was unveiled on the steps of the Municipal Services Building following the Mummers Parade on January 1, 1999. It was admired by his fans and blue-collar conservatives and resented by those who remembered Rizzo’s brutal politics.

Opposition to the memorial had been fomenting for years when Heather Heyer, a counter-protester against white supremacy, was killed in the Charlottesville riots in 2017. Two days later, Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym tweeted a challenge to Philadelphians to take down the Rizzo statue, an idea that felt to some like a progressive pipe dream. Around the same time, Monument Lab commissioned artist Hank Willis Thomas to create All Power to All People, an 800-pound, eight-foot-tall black-handled Afro pick, to go up temporarily near the Rizzo statue. That juxtaposition, at that time, seemed to spark a sense of possibility.

“When I saw the monument that Hank put together, it just resonated with me in a different way. I felt like a voice was being given to the voiceless people, and I felt like a part of our community that has been underserved for such a long time was being spoken to,” Roots MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter said in a 2017 discussion sponsored by Monument Lab.

It took another three years, and the tremendous shift in momentum that came with the protests of summer 2020, for the Rizzo statue to finally come down. By that time, the decades of debate were wiped away, replaced by a declarative tweet from Mayor Jim Kenney, who described the statue as representing “bigotry, hatred and oppression for too many people for too long.” In a press conference, Kenney added, “That statue was representative of that era and had to go away in order for us to understand where we need to go going forward.”

Since Monument Lab places so much value on process, inclusion and collaboration, it isn’t surprising that its origin story begins in a college classroom. In the fall of 2012, Farber returned to Philadelphia — he’d grown up in Mount Airy, attending Germantown Friends School and then Penn for his undergrad degree — to finish up his doctoral dissertation in American culture from the University of Michigan. He was teaching a class for the Urban Studies program at Penn called “Memory, Monuments, and Urban Space.” Meanwhile, in the fine arts department, Ken Lum, who would become Monument Lab’s co-founder and now serves as its chief curatorial advisor, was teaching a course in public art. They were probing the same issues and fascinated by the same questions about Philadelphia’s memorial landscape, and they wondered how they could turn their mutual interest into something bigger. They knew they weren’t alone in asking these questions. People in grassroots organizations and art spaces were all operating independently, nibbling away at these ideas. It was Lum who emailed Farber in 2013 and said he was thinking about doing a project and wanted Farber to join. Monument Lab was on its way.

They established their “research labs,” set up next to temporary exhibits, that yielded huge hauls of opinions, ideas and input from the public. Farber says that during a one-month temporary installation in 2015 at City Hall, when they set out to learn from passersby what monuments would be appropriate for Philadelphia, they interacted with hundreds of people, enlisting them to fill out handwritten, often sketched-out monument proposals. These were folks walking through the crossroads in City Hall’s courtyard, passing the late artist Terry Adkins’s empty classroom installation of wooden benches that had been commissioned by Monument Lab.

Then, for two months in the fall of 2017, Monument Lab’s follow-up exhibition of 20 temporary monuments (including Hank Thomas’s Afro pick) made by local, national and international artists — Tania Bruguera, Mel Chin, Michelle Angela Ortiz, Emeka Ogboh, Ursula Rucker, King Britt and Joshua Mays, to name a few — in parks and neighborhoods in all pockets of the city generated close to 4,500 monument proposals from the quarter of a million people who engaged with it. The input from the public was analyzed and uploaded as a data set to OpenDataPhilly and presented to the mayor and city officials in September 2018. The proposals were also archived at Penn Libraries and are available as a future research tool.

This past summer, Monument Lab worked with the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philly to create the outdoor exhibition “Staying Power,” where visitors were asked the same questions as the artists who displayed work: What is your staying power in your neighborhood? What is your staying power in a city and a world that are rapidly changing?

The organization’s mission is to connect with other institutions and cities to propagate this kind of work. Monument Lab now has close to a dozen projects in the works across the nation, set to debut anytime from in the next few weeks to in the next five years. They include public art and history exhibitions, public programs, and commissions from museums and universities.

The organization has gotten so ubiquitous, at least in some circles, that Monument Lab has now become a verb: Educators call Farber and say, “We Monument Labbed with the kids at school.” Monument Lab has built a network reaching throughout the country, with partners and fellows in other cities: Charlottesville, Chicago, Los Angeles, Memphis, Newark, New Orleans, New York, Providence, Richmond, San Francisco, St. Louis and Washington, D.C.

There’s something to be said for being in the right place to catch a wave of the zeitgeist.

“They were talking about these issues before national dialogue started to occur,” says Jane Golden, executive director of Philadelphia’s vaunted Mural Arts program, which partnered with Farber and Monument Lab for its 2017 citywide exhibition. “Timing is everything. These issues around monuments that are hundreds of years in the making are here to stay.”

What’s remarkable is that nobody else is doing quite what Monument Lab does. There are, as Farber puts it, sibling and cousin organizations out there, and those that operate in similar spheres, but no other organization with a similar collection of skills and structure. Others may be in the contemporary-art lane or the public-history lane or the activism lane, but to put it all together, like a Marvel superhero team with myriad abilities and talents — that’s where Monument Lab is asserting its identity.

“Part of why our approach can’t be one type of intervention, or a book, or shows, or only exploratory research,” says Sue Mobley, the senior research scholar and director of research at Monument Lab, “is that the people who constructed the landscape we have were invested in multiple forms of crafting the narrative. So if what you’re up against is the control of narrative through textbooks, the film industry, public space and monuments, and whom school buildings and streets were named for and what cemeteries are recognized as historic sites and for whom highways are named, the response has to be equally broad and equally relentless to succeed.”

Farber cites the ongoing national debate about statues honoring Confederate heroes to underscore this point. Part of the reason this debate is so sprawling is that the statues were just one part of a larger plan to influence the narrative around the Civil War.

“One of the biggest sponsors of monuments — conventional monuments, at least,” he says, “was the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who are largely responsible for the Lost Cause Confederate monuments around the country. They built monuments and statues and worked off of the pedestals, too, on curriculum, on holidays, on public campaigns. So part of what is being confronted now isn’t just marble statues, but mind-sets that have been deeply entrenched in collusion with systems of power. It requires many hands and many approaches.”

I’ve just spent the morning talking theory with some of Monument Lab’s core team — Farber, Sue Mobley, associate director of public programs Patricia Eunji Kim, and director of partnerships Naima Murphy Salcido — in their new permanent headquarters, a cool decommissioned firehouse in Kensington. It has big Ghostbusters energy.

We’ve been sitting around a table in the middle of the old firehouse and discussing the power of monuments, particularly those in Philadelphia. As the lab’s leaders carefully select their words, debate the biggest issues of justice and inclusion, and ask for permission to take turns speaking, I feel like I’m in a grad-school seminar rather than an office meeting. But what I’m really experiencing is a peek into the didactic world of a research think tank where discussion and ideas are the process and the product.

There’s talk about the Rocky statue, perhaps the most famous monument in the city to someone who never lived, and why it possesses an almost mythical status — despite rankling art aficionados who have long asserted that a relatively mundane statue of a movie character doesn’t deserve pride of place at the city’s premier museum. And yet: Rocky is a character that has been adopted by the city and woven into the civic fabric because of his underdog status. He was persistent, he had a huge heart, and he may not have won, but no one would ever have considered him a bum. It’s a sentiment that connects with a lot of locals. Farber mentions anecdotes of people making pilgrimages to the statue when they’re fighting cancer or seeking luck before a big job interview. Rocky captured our imagination, and now his statue functions like a beacon of that idea of grit and perseverance.

But Rocky isn’t the only monument of note at the museum. The conversation gets even more animated when the institution’s steps are discussed. Those steps are like the people’s pedestal, with a long history as a place of congregation. Think of all of the civic functions that have unfolded on them: the Eagles victory parade, the Women’s March, Pope Francis’s service, Made in America concerts, the protests for racial equality. People keep returning there because they want to connect to this power and be a part of the history that happens in that space. It’s no mistake that last summer, as protests began to reemerge in the face of systemic racism and state violence, the steps were a place for congregating for protests, vigils, mourning and celebration.

The conversation is meaty, and the meeting style demonstrates a profound respect for the process of how things get done, not just the result. As Farber says, “It’s like asking how a meal is made. We think process matters as much as the outcome, and that’s the case for new projects we take on.”

Though the team members of Monument Lab thrive on complexity and multitudes of ways to answer a question, I find myself craving some concrete answers. I ask: How will they know they’re moving the needle on these big issues of our times? What are the metrics to tell if what they’re doing is working? The conundrum is that they may not know for years.

Farber has described the work of Monument Lab as being both urgent and generational. The staffers are like Portuguese cork farmers, planting trees that will mature 30 years from now. They have to have faith in the core of their mission and that others in the future will join them in this long and enduring task of revising what monuments can do and be. They’re kindling the public’s imagination and spirit of inquiry now, though it may not translate into new monuments for years or decades.

But Monument Lab believes its momentum validates its process. “We’ve seen a swelling of the monument movement,” Farber says. “We saw the dedication of the first sculpture to a Black girl in the city in 2019 — MVP, in South Philly’s Smith Playground. We saw a questionnaire put out by the city’s art and culture office about public art, and I also see the work being replicated in other cities, in universities and grade schools and graduate programs alike.”

The Kenney administration has launched the Landmarks and Monuments Review to assess current work and consider public requests to remove, rename or recontextualize certain monuments. Consider that there are only two historical female statues in the city, of France’s Joan of Arc and of Colonial-era Boston Quaker Mary Dyer. Neither hails from here. In a city that’s 42 percent Black, there’s only one statue of a Black man on city property: that of 19th-century civil rights advocate and educator Octavius V. Catto. It didn’t go up until 2017. The lack of representation of women and people of color may not be unexpected — remember that thing about power? — but it speaks volumes. And it makes for an incomplete and, frankly, less interesting history. Farber writes in the book Monument Lab: Creative Speculations for Philadelphia: “We elevate a disproportionately wealthier, whiter, more militaristic, and overwhelmingly male version of the past above others.”

Now they’re moving outward, onto a broader stage. Jane Golden says the work Monument Lab is doing — the national audit, publishing, podcasting, doing projects and seeding other work — is raising awareness of how monuments have happened and continue to happen: “That will spark conversation among other cities to question their policies and procedures around how they create monuments. Their future really is one of huge potential. Eventually, more and more cities will turn to them for advice and information.”

The last time we meet, Paul Farber and I are standing in the shadow of the Second Empire grandeur of City Hall. We’re on the southwest corner, near the Octavius V. Catto monument that was installed just four years ago — the first full-figure statue of a historic person of color on city land. The professor in Farber can’t be denied, and he gives an impromptu lesson on the power of this monument and all those historians and activist coalitions who worked together for years to make the statue a reality. He describes how it tells a multifaceted story about Catto and his work as an educator, as a noted baseball player, as a civil rights activist and as a Black suffragist — one who was eventually assassinated at 9th and South on Election Day in 1871, at age 32.

“I remember the opening and the feeling of jubilation,” Farber recalls of the unveiling. “You saw a collective of people led by Black organizations, artists, memory keepers, a multiracial collective around them, and then this fanfare. But it took more than a generation to get that built. This space has since become the backdrop for press conferences and of those long lines when people were voting last fall. It has been a place of vigil after the police murder of Walter Wallace Jr. … And as soon as this statue went up, other things started to happen. A Catto mural was painted; the school district added Catto and other Black freedom fighters into its curriculum. There’s a scholarship fund at the Community College of Philadelphia in Catto’s honor.”

As Farber is telling me about Catto and the power of monuments to promote inclusion and representation, a young Black man approaches. I can’t see his expression behind his sunglasses, but he doesn’t break stride as he passes the statue and raises his arm high enough to slap his hand into each of Catto’s massive outstretched palms. The man is past us quickly, but his actions, however subtle and fleeting, demonstrate what connection and belonging can look like.

Published as “Statues of Limitation” in the October 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.