"Beyond Granite: Pulling Together" Brings Connection and Belonging to the National Mall
The National Mall in Washington, D.C. has been a place of protest, a place of solace, and a place to gather. Now, for six weeks through September 18, 2023, it has also become a place for art with Beyond Granite: Pulling Together, an open-air exhibition featuring six artists answering the question “What Stories Remain Untold on the National Mall?” In response, each artist created installations that are personal, emotional, and looking to build a more representative narrative in this historic space.
As the first curated outdoor exhibition on the National Mall, Pulling Together was presented by The Trust for the National Mall in partnership with the National Capital Planning Commission, and the National Park Service. Curated by Paul Farber and Salamishah Tillet for Monument Lab, this pilot exhibition in the broader Beyond Granite initiative was funded by the Mellon Foundation’s Monument Project (The Mellon Foundation provided leadership support for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Fund).
Teresa Durkin, executive vice president of the Trust for the National Mall, said, “Our goal is to test how an ongoing series of temporary art installations could have profound impact in the dialogue of commemoration among the monuments and memorials this summer and beyond.”
The name Pulling Together comes from the words of civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune following Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Sunday performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial (after being barred from Constitution Hall due to Washington, D.C. segregation laws). Bethune described a moment that “told a story of hope for tomorrow—a story of triumph—a story of pulling together, a story of splendor and real democracy.” Reflecting those words, Tillet said in the introductory video for the exhibition, "We believe that Pulling Together is not just a series of prototype monuments, but a prototype for how we can engage democracy itself."
Creating Connection Through Sightlines
When building a monument, memorial, or other public space, architects often think about sightlines. That intentional viewpoint, from one structure to another, builds a visible connection that is also loaded with invisible meaning. It is the sightlines between existing monuments and memorials on the National Mall and these new installations that create a tether between the past and the present.
The starting point of Pulling Together is vanessa german’s Of Thee We Sing, which stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial and faces the Washington Monument. This sculpture of singer Marian Anderson grounds visitors in a real event and place, emphasizing the larger than life moment by including hands—with photographs of people on them—seemingly holding up the statue’s base. The edging of the sculpture’s robe has musical notes, invoking the power of music to bring a community together. It is in this place that Anderson shifted the words to "My Country 'Tis of Thee" to encompass more than herself, when she sang “of thee we sing.”
The next stop in the exhibition leads visitors to walk past the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Carrying the names on Maya Lin’s memorial up a rise in the lawn, visitors encounter Tiffany Chung’s For the Living. Lying flat on the hillside, Chung designed a map that traces the land, sea, and air routes of immigrants and refugees including the routes taken by Southeast Asians following the Vietnam War. On first glance its apparent two-dimensionality feels constricting, but as you trace the lines as they lay on the National Mall, they create linkages between departure and arrival, showing that becoming American is as much about the journey as it is about identity.
It is unsurprising that the next installation is located across a bridge on Signers Island in an area known as Constitution Gardens, a memorial to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Wendy Red Star’s The Soil You See is breathtaking. A giant fingerprint on which are the names of the Apsáalooke (Crow) Nation chiefs who signed treaties with the United States government. The sculpture is illustrative of how many of these Tribal treaties were signed not with a name but with a thumb print or an x. The piece asks viewers to be a part of a physical land acknowledgement, and to connect with the Indigenous histories that are not one story, but rather a part of a set of actions and reactions.
Just Beyond The Soil You See is Derrick Adams’ America’s Playground: DC. Using archival images of the all-white Edgewood Park, before 1954’s Bolling v. Sharpe declared DC’s segregated schools unconstitutional, Adams leverages color, material, and sound (the play of musical instruments) to highlight integration in Washington, D.C. Located in front of the Washington Monument, and within Constitution Gardens, this installation links together ideas of access, equity, and the fight for civil rights—ideas that are a part of our journey towards a more perfect union—in a place of joy.
Sitting within view of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH) and the Washington Monument is Ashon T. Crawley’s Homegoing where Crawley uses music to build connection between mourning and celebrating lives gone too soon. An audiovisual installation dedicated to those lost during the AIDS crisis, Adams created an interactive sculpture through which visitors engage with music reminiscent of the Black church. It is a marker for lives that are so easily overlooked, acknowledging their dignity in a space often used for remembering those who passed.
After leaving Homegoing visitors are led beyond the Washington Monument to the final installation: Paul Ramírez Jonas’ Let Freedom Ring. Located in front of the National Museum of American History and within sight of the Capitol Building, Jonas’ installation is an interactive bell tower which plays My Country 'Tis of Thee, a melodic tune whose lyrics have been transformed throughout its history. For this installation, Jonas goes a step further, inviting visitors to be a part of the narrative, pulling a lever to ring the final tone.
The National Mall as a Place of Belonging
At the opening reception of Beyond Granite: Pulling Together, Charles F. Sams III, director of the National Park Service, said, “Beyond Granite is groundbreaking, and it's significant in the work to bring new stories and new perspectives to the National Mall so that more people who visit, feel, seen, feel heard, and feel a sense of belonging. As Americans, we are only stronger by our diversity.”
The impact is more than symbolic, it encourages conversation. At each site there are members of the exhibition’s installation team prepared to speak to visitors about the art and its significance. One of those members, Dylan Krinberg, said, “I have watched passersby engaging [with the art] by choice at varying degrees; from the runners who [glance as they pass by], the families who ask us what the piece in front of us is, and people who avoid making any sort of contact at all. It’s interesting to hear the myriad of perspectives and anecdotes when someone makes that decision to want to learn more about what they are seeing.” Another member of the team, Logan Fillizola said, “every day I learn something new from each of these interactions. I leave every shift feeling intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually stimulated.”
This moment of resonance, that choice to participate and engage with the art directly, is carried forward in in Jonas' Let Freedom Ring, When visitors ring the final note themselves, they are connected—to those who lost their lives to a terrible disease, to the children playing on a desegregated playground, to the Native Americans and Indigenous people whose histories are in the soil, the refugees and immigrants traveling to make the United States their home, and finally to Marian Anderson who stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 and changed a single lyric, transforming "My Country 'Tis of Thee" into a song about community, a song about people—as Bethune said– pulling together.
In 2023, James Madison's Montpelier, a National Trust Historic Site, received a grant from the Mellon Foundation's Monument Project to memorialize the lives of enslaved people at the site. The program formally kicked off in August with a Summer Celebration called "We the People."
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