Julius Ferraro is a freelance writer in Philadelphia, a former Festival Guide intern, and regular blog contributor.
“Let your eyes wander . . . Really look at it, closely . . . Look at it where it’s all rough, hacked and gouged crevices . . . Have a look underneath. Look at the tapering points and get in the crevices. Get on your knees and look underneath . . .”
This is what my audio tour tells me to do, so I do it. I’m in the middle of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia’s broadest and most tourist-happy boulevard, on a mild summer day, crawling on my hands and knees in the grass to get a good look at the underside of a sculpture.
This sculpture is just one stop on a new set of audio tours that spans four and a half miles from City Hall, up the Ben Franklin Parkway, past the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and along Kelly Drive. The tour, commissioned by the Association for Public Art, spans more than forty pieces including Three-Way Piece Number 1: Points by Henry Moore, the toothy bronze monolith I’m currently investigating like it’s a crime scene.
After the jump: interacting with “civic bling.”
I wish that I, scrambling around in the grass there, wasn’t such a strange sight. “[Points is] an easy piece to approach,” says sculptor Mei-Ling Hom in my audio guide, so why don’t more people approach it? It’s an exaggeration to say that Fairmount’s absurd wealth of public art is ignored by passers-by; just look at the crowds enjoying the fountains every day of the week. But a lot of it doesn’t get the love that it deserves. I never see is people stopping to get on their knees under Points, or running around at the feet of di Suvero’s Iroquoi—that giant, red, delicately balanced steel construct across from the art museum—or lounging within the Robert Morris’s peaceful, sheltering The Wedges on Kelly Drive. Museum Without Walls reminds us to interact.
When I do an audio tour (I generally don’t) I want primarily A) to be engaged and B) to gain some insight I could not have achieved on my own. I do not want to be overstuffed with pointless information, or to be told what the piece “means.”
And Museum Without Walls manages this effectively and gracefully. Each audio tour features the voices of multiple artists, lecturers, curators, teachers, historians, biographers, etc., all of whom have some claim to expertise on the subject of the artwork at hand. What this means is that, rather than the lone, somnambulant voice that haunts so many museum audio tours, these speakers are hand-picked for for their personal connection to the pieces, and their passion and intimate knowledge drive the program.
In more than a few cases, one of the speakers is related to the artist. For All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, the great-grandson of the commissioner of the piece tells the story of his mother’s struggle to have the memorial moved to a prominent space. In the guide to Aero Memorial, the bronze sphere across from the Franklin Institute, the sculptor’s grandson talks about the astronomy of the stars which are set into the bronze—each one accurately set in its place in the sky. For Iroquoi, the sculptor himself talks about the making of the piece alongside one of his major collaborators.
I do admit that standing outside with all of the ambient noise and traffic can make audio tours a bit harder to pay attention to. And while one or two of the tours are frankly a waste of time (I’m thinking mainly of the Shakespeare Memorial tour, which takes up a frustrating amount of time discussing anything but the statue), for the most part it’s well worth the angst, and the program provided me with a few remarkable moments I would not have had otherwise.
I had always kind of avoided Nathan Rapoport’s Monument to Six Million Jewish Martyrs, which stands not far from Suburban Station. It can be difficult to parse on a first viewing—much like a lot of Holocaust photographs. This homage to Jewish resistance is shaped by bodies twisted together in a burning bush, and presents a different scene from every angle. With smartphone in hand, as Rapoport’s daughter guided me through the shapes contained within the bush, I began to understand the dramatic figures for the first time: a mother lying akimbo, arms dangling; her wide-eyed baby struggling upward from her chest; a man thrusting his arms wide in prayer; and above them, fists clutching weapons of resistance and a torah.
Some revelations were less dramatic. For example, I now know that in 1869, when the Philadelphia Fountain Society was formed, there were 35,000 horses carrying people and goods around Philadelphia, and no public access to water on hot summer days. I also learned that Copernicus was a Pole named Kopernik, and that those awesome statues of naked people fighting cats in front of the art museum were placed there to prove that Philadelphia was a culturally adult city like Berlin, where the originals stand. “Civic bling” my audio guide calls them.
For someone like me, who set out with the express purpose of doing the tour, the smartphone app made it easy. I downloaded the whole program and used it to browse sculpture by sculpture. But there are actually multiple ways of accessing the audio. For a more casual viewer, or someone who doesn’t even know that the audio guides exist, each sculpture now has a plaque which lists the phone number you can call to access the audio.
There’s an online component, too. The website features an easily navigable map from which you can access audio slideshows. What this means is that the program doesn’t shut down when the weather gets bad. Don’t feel like going out in that blizzard, but you still want to know why the huge George Washington fountain has alligators and bears lounging at its base? Your paper on Tadeusz Kosciuszko is due in an hour and you’re curious why his statue’s got one foot set a half-step ahead of the other? You’re covered here.
So what MWW effectively has created is the beginnings of an online database of Philadelphia public art, powered by unique interviews and the exclusive knowledge conveyed by the audio tour. On the website, the audio is accompanied by video which follows the narration with pictures of the piece and its surroundings, so it almost feels like you’re standing in front of the sculpture.
My final words are this: If you haven’t done Museum Without Walls yet, you’re missing out. And when you do, don’t let the internet keep you locked up inside. The program is about public art, so get out in public. Walk under the legs the massive red Iroquoi in Eakins Oval. Stare down that weird gold Joan of Arc by the art museum. Get funny looks from tourists while you scramble around on your knees getting a good look at the underside of Points. Have a conversation with the people in line at the Rocky statue, because art benefits from interaction.