As a public historian who works in urban planning, I often think about how the past can help us plan better futures. So as we settle into a new year, I’d like to extend an invitation to think more broadly about the past of place:

Where do you live? What is its history? How has the past shaped the kind of place it is today? Whose stories are visible in the built environment, whose aren’t, and why? What narratives and experiences might surface when we look more closely, read between the lines, and engage with overlooked stories of the past and present?

This spring, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s (MAPC) Arts and Culture department and NEFA’s Public Art department are collaborating to examine these questions and the intersections of public art, memory, and place in the Greater Boston area through a public discussion series: "Public Art/Public Places: Reimagining Public Memory and Public Culture in Greater Boston."

Why now?

This is a particularly timely moment for the region and country, as: 

  • 2019 marked the 400th anniversary since the arrival of enslaved Africans to English North America
  • 2020 is the 400th anniversary since the landing of English settlers at Plymouth
  • 2021 will be the quatercentenary of the mythical first Thanksgiving (An example of how historical narratives can change)

It seems appropriate to take this moment to reflect on these histories, as well as on the popular narratives that surround – and often obscure – them.

Meanwhile, controversies over monuments and memorials remain highly visible, and historic preservationists have also begun to grapple with fundamental questions at the heart of the field: How do power and politics shape standards of historic significance, and how does that influence the kinds of sites and landscapes we preserve and what is remembered in our public places?

As we think about how public art has and continues to influence our landscape and public narratives of place, there is a need to reframe and express the narratives of our region’s past—and, in turn, our contemporary identities as region—in more inclusive terms. 

Initiatives like the African American Trail Project and the Deer Island Native American memorial are doing that by making stories that have long gone unrecognized in popular narratives of the region visible and tangible, while creating space for the expression of a more complex, nuanced, and rich understanding of our regional history, experiences and identities. Artists have also taken up the charge by deploying creative strategies to reframe the conversation: recent projects in Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans, and London have proposed counter-monuments that offer radical visions of what 21st century monuments should be.

With this series, we’ll be reframing our past and imagining new futures. As MAPC is in the process of developing a new regional plan, MetroCommon 2050, and imagining what Greater Boston could look like in 30 years, we cannot understand where we should go without a firm grounding in where we have come from. So we’re asking tough questions:

As we envision and plan for the future of Greater Boston, whose experiences, histories, narratives, and cultures do we want to see reflected in our public spaces and cultural landscapes? How might we use the power of memory, storytelling, and creative imagination to bring them to light? And what can these stories teach us about building inclusive communities?

While the answers to these questions are still in formation, we need the tools of public history, public humanities, social justice, and the arts to lay the groundwork for movement building and political change: to acknowledge past harm, repair relationships, and build trust; to bring new voices into the conversation; and to tell stories that engage people on an emotional level and imagine creative, radical possibilities for the future.

We hope you will join us in this effort – and in conversation this spring. We will announce further details about the Public Art/Public Places: Reimagining Public Memory and Public Culture in Greater Boston discussions later this month.

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A sketch of three rows of pews with a presentation board before them.
Terry Adkins. Prototype Monument for Center Square (2015). Image courtesy of Monument Lab via Flickr. Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 2.0.

About Emma Boast

Emma Boast joined MAPC in 2019 as an Arts and Culture Fellow in the Arts and Culture Department, where she is serving a two-year term. In her work as an interdisciplinary curator, communicator, and public practitioner, she focuses on how ethical practices of public engagement and principles of cultural justice can transform cultural institutions, public spaces, and cities by fostering new knowledge and sustaining more just forms of public life. Prior to joining MAPC, Emma worked as curator and cultural organizer. Her experience has included curatorial work with the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago and cultural policy development with the Department of Art, Culture + Tourism in Providence, RI. She also spent five years as the founding Director of Exhibitions and Programming at the Museum of Food and Drink in New York City. She holds an M.A. in Public Humanities from Brown University and a B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago.

About the Metropolitan Area Planning Council

MAPC is the Regional Planning Agency (RPA) serving the people who live and work in metropolitan Boston. Our mission is to promote smart growth and regional collaboration. MAPC’s Arts and Culture Department is a team of urban planners and artists dedicated to engaging arts and culture in planning and public policy through local and regional planning projects, research, advocacy, and training. The agency is guided by MetroFuture: Making a Greater Boston Region, our regional policy plan for the region, which was adopted in 2008. We are currently working on a successor regional plan, MetroCommon2050, which we expect to complete by 2020. Learn more at metrocommon.mapc.org.

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