Integrating Public History and Public Space – An example from Philadelphia

In my wanderings I sometimes come across interesting examples of how works of art, public murals, commemorative plaques educate the public in interesting ways. Usually these spaces contain a statue, or a brief description of the person, place or event but while meandering around Philadelphia many months ago I came across an interesting little example using public space.

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Education using public space on 16th St. and Wharton in Philadelphia at the G.W. Childs School.

On the walls of the G.W. Childs school on 16th Street and Wharton they had place four panels explaining and exploring the definition of the word “culture.” It caught my attention, making me slow, and then pause to read each entry. I began to smile as I read them and then took a photograph of the wall so I would not forget it. There is much you could say much about the photograph of the school, the pretty patterns and the way a tree is bursting forth across the door, or the contrast between the iron grating protecting the windows forming a barrier and the mural attempting to reach out to the community. However I want to focus briefly at the topic of the mural; culture and the way it is presented to the public.

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The colorful patterns draw your eyes while the writing challenges you to think about what you see and how you see it.

Each panel explains culture to the reader in different ways, how it is transmitted, understood, and influences people. The only thing I would suggest they add is a panel discussing how culture is often contested. One person might define a culture one way, whereas another person might define it in a very different way even if they hail from the same cultural background. At present this is particularly easy to observe in a contentious election season.

But what I want to congratulate the authors of this work is the way that they challenge the reader to think about the idea of culture in several different ways. Often these public art works speak to the viewer simplistically. These sentences offer very little context and are likely to be quite challenging for a member of the general public to read. When I was very young I hated when people needlessly talked down to me because I was young. I often see similar efforts to interact with the public on the front of buildings or schools to be very superficial, to the point of banality, in a needless effort to simplify their message. In my humble opinion one such public work is the Spire in Dublin. Before I completely retreat from the dangerous tangential path of art criticism I expect there are very few people out there who could suggest the Spire challenges us in an interesting way. Certain it is not as interesting as this little work on a school building in Philly.

Mostly I would encourage you to wander and perhaps you will likewise find interesting uses of public space. I feel that schools that do this in interesting ways should be commended and thus the inspiration for this brief rambling post.

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About Alan Noonan

Alan Noonan is currently a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress. He received his PhD in history from University College Cork, and has experience as a historical consultant and researcher. He has been awarded several fellowships including the Glucksman Government of Ireland Fellowship at New York University, a Mellon Fellowship at the Library Company in Philadelphia, and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of American History.
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