Paper Monuments

In every city and town monuments scatter parks, streets and squares seeking to portray the historical significance of a place, person or happening. Cast in stone, bronze or marked with a flag, moments capture time through symbols and signs.

In 2015, following the tragic loss of nine lives in a shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, a wave of protests against monuments ensued. Communities became divided as to whether these ‘Jim Crow’ symbols gave justice to the past, whether there were other voices to be heard and whether there were more stories to be told.

Across the United States public monuments began to be pulled down. In New Orleans the government took down the statues of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, as well as a monument honouring the paramilitary organisation the White League.

Over time the conversations moved from reprisal to replacement; from what was, to what should be the relationship between the built environment and history, and who are the heroes for future generations.

Modelled on the Philadelphia based Monument Lab, a group of local volunteers set out on a serendipitous journey to use public art, history and public spaces to change the way New Orleans landmarks curated the city’s past.

Using a community driven, participatory design process community members had the opportunity to write, speak or draw what they believed were appropriate monuments for the city today.

Through the collective efforts of an eclectic group of designers, artists, urbanists and educators these ideas were then brought to life to tell some of the lost stories that shaped the city over the past 300 years.

According to lead Paper Monuments team member Sue Mobley, the art installations used paper as “it was affordable, accessible and ephemeral” and “through trial and error” these art installations morphed into a series of posters and billboards that were plastered onto walls of buildings, on construction sites and at public transit wait stops. The art works tell the stories of people such as Saint Katharine Drexel the first Sister of the Blessed Sacrament for Indian and Coloured People, of places such as jazz hub the Dew Drop Inn that pioneered a desegregated ‘open-door’ policy, and events like the high profile sit-in at McCrory's which attempted to desegregate Canal Street lunch counters.

These paper monuments have provoked sadness, anger and celebration. Some have been defaced and destroyed while others have been protected and preserved. They have all re-educated and re-connected people with the past.

The project has now secured additional resources and is moving to install permanent artworks, installations that will come off the wall and claim public space, monuments that show moments in perpetuity and markers that recognise that there is a hero in each of us.

Paper Monuments was a session at the 2018 Walk, Bike, Place Conference, New Orleans

Katherine O’Regan

Executive Director

Cities Leadership Institute

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Level 23, 45 Clarence Street

Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia

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