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Paul Farber is the first curator-in-residence for the U-M Arts Initiative. In this position he explores the role of public art and experience on campus, using public art to weave together various campus communities around topical issues and leveraging art as a bridge between U-M and residents of Southeast Michigan. Photo by Liz Barney/Courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Art

Over three years ago, LSA American culture alum Paul Farber (M.A. ’09, Ph.D. ’13) and a team of researchers audited nearly 50,000 U.S. conventional monuments. He’s found that these monuments shape public perception of historical events, even though many do not tell the whole story. He founded Monument Lab in the name of public service, envisioning a world described in the organization’s value statement, in which “monuments are dynamic and defined by their meaning, not by their hardened immovable and untouchable status.” Now, in a new collaboration with the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), Farber invites the college to create public symbols of joy, regeneration, and repair.

LSA: In 2020, Monument Lab was awarded a grant by the Mellon Foundation to support the production of a definitive audit of the nation’s monuments—a project that garnered widespread attention. What were your findings?

Paul Farber: The National Monument Audit, a 2021 study produced in partnership with the Mellon Foundation, offered a composite portrait of the ways we as Americans have shaped our monument landscape across generations. The study set included conventional monuments from all 50 states, U.S. territories, and numerous Tribal communities. Our audit drew on sources from federal, state, municipal, Tribal, institutional, and other publicly available sources.

As for the key findings, we summarized them like this:

  • Monuments have always changed.
  • The monument landscape is overwhelmingly white and male.
  • The most common features of American monuments reflect war and conquest.
  • The story of the United States as told by our current monument landscape misrepresents our history.

In conducting this audit and discussing its findings with people from around this country and beyond, we have been inspired by the ways place-keepers and stewards of memory have utilized this research in the service of the work they are doing to reimagine our public spaces.


You’re Welcome is a collaboration between former UMMA curator Ozi Uduma (A.B. ’14), left, who co-curated the exhibition with Monument Lab founder Paul Farber, right. They are pictured here on the steps of the museum with artist Cannupa Hanska Luger, center. Photo by Ian Solomon/Courtesy of the University of Michigan Museum of Art


LSA: You’re an alum of LSA’s American culture department. Did your studies help you arrive at the founding of Monument Lab?

PF: My experience as a doctoral student in American culture guided me toward questions of memory and memorialization. I wrote my dissertation on American artists and the Berlin Wall, which became my first book, A Wall of Our Own (The University of North Carolina Press, 2020), in part because I found myself curious about the pieces of the dismantled wall installed in public spaces around the U.S. and other global sites. More broadly, I learned from a remarkable group of mentors, colleagues, students, and visiting artists who helped me understand the ways monumental histories live on and off pedestals, and to witness history as a living force.

LSA: You and the artist Cannupa Hanska Luger have been working on a multi-year collaboration with UMMA to examine the stories of the university’s founding, which has culminated in an exhibition called You’re Welcome. Can you share the story of this collaboration?

PF: Cannupa Hanska Luger’s artistic practice is generative and generous. We began speaking during the early days of the pandemic virtually, and met for the first time in person in Ann Arbor for this project. Together, we, along with UMMA curators and staff, aimed to channel our energy toward an active reflection on and experimentation with the campus’s architecture.

LSA: You’re Welcome includes an exterior commission, a gallery exhibition, and a public classroom. Can you describe how these three pieces of the exhibition converse with each other in the UMMA space, and ideally, how a visitor to the museum might interact with the exhibition?

PF: The common thread through this exhibition is a central question: How do we remember on this campus? Each component of the exhibition responds to that question in a different manner, but with a shared dynamic of marking and remixing official and unofficial modes of memorialization. This includes an experimental commission on the facade of Alumni Memorial Hall, an installation including Cannupa’s artworks “consuming” artifacts from UMMA’s collections related to extraction and landscape, and a Monument Lab Public Classroom where visitors share their own responses to the central prompt.

Our hope is that visitors not only take in the artworks but see themselves as part of a campus history that is constantly in flux.

LSA: What do you believe the power of memory in public spaces is? Said another way, what responsibility is attached to remembrance?

PF: We are constantly living with and shaping our history, through the places we live, travel, extract resources, and leave imprints. Our responsibility is to labor to grapple with the lessons and burdens of the past, and to use those reflections as ways to live more fully, equitably, and sustainably now and onward. Remembrance is not just about separating the past, present, and future, but to weave together those distinctions through our actions and relationships.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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Release Date: 05/08/2024
Category: Alumni; Research
Tags: LSA; Museum of Anthropological Archaeology; American Culture; LSA Magazine; Humanities; Gina Balibrera