Set In Stone

Auburn researchers explore art, history and story at The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art

“Monuments and Myths: The America of Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French” kicked off a national tour at The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University this summer, bringing the work of America’s premier Gilded Age sculptors to The Plains. Faculty and students from the College of Liberal Arts and College of Education created research-based projects to educate and engage visitors during the exhibition run at Auburn.

“Object Lab” is the museum’s ongoing hybrid gallery classroom linking Auburn’s collection objects and exhibitions to teaching and research across campus to develop multidisciplinary inquiry. This summer’s “Object Lab: What is a Monument?” connected faculty and students across campus to transform the space into a practicum exhibition.

Dr. Randi Evans, manager of public practice and community partnerships for the museum, said the exhibition’s debut at Auburn presented an opportunity to draw on extensive research expertise to supplement its educational value.

“This exhibition highlights the work of Saint-Gaudens and French, preeminent sculptors of the Gilded Age, and brings to the forefront questions of craftsmanship, historic memory and the role of art in public and civic life and the histories and stories we tell ourselves,” Evans said. “The exhibition attempts to celebrate the artistry of Saint-Gaudens and French’s work while also highlighting issues of race, gender and labor, public grief and mourning, and the dominance and inheritance of Eurocentric values and aesthetics. To tackle these issues, we wanted to use a multidisciplinary approach.”

Dr. Kristen Tordella-Williams and Dr. Elijah Gaddis
Dr. Kristen Tordella-Williams and Dr. Elijah Gaddis

The work of Saint-Gaudens and French reflected America’s national identity between the Civil War and Great Depression, including Saint-Gaudens’s “Diana” at Madison Square Garden and French’s “Seated Abraham Lincoln” at the Lincoln Memorial. Beyond the monuments’ expert craftsmanship, stories of how the country negotiated its history and meaning are built into the artwork.

Associate Professor of History Dr. Elijah Gaddis studies the South’s spatial, material and cultural histories. His expertise includes the interplay of physical objects and complicated histories. At “Monuments and Myths,” he led his class in creating short, critical essays about monuments in Alabama.

“A lot of times, when we focus on monuments and especially all these bad monuments, there’s so much on origins,” Gaddis said. “If you’re opposed to monuments, say a Lost Cause monument, you’re often thinking about the moment that it was put up and all the sort of white supremacist ideology that gets tied to it, but then we don’t think about sort of the accretion of meaning that goes on for generation and generation. These are living things we’re interacting with and still have that meaning being put onto them.”

Monuments represent a narrative by creating dedicated space and conveying the importance of a figure, site or ideology, often privileging one narrative over several complex experiences. Associate Professor of English Rose McLarney encouraged students to explore those themes through poetry, which blended their personal experience and collective causes around monuments.

“Even students who were writing about personal narratives were often talking about how the monuments made them feel,” McLarney said. “That was revealing to me, that maybe even before we were having a lot of public discourse about what these monuments in public spaces are doing to people, that we were aware of it at some level.” Beyond the sculptures on view, students also wrote about monuments in their communities.

Associate Professor of Art Kristen Tordella-Williams brought a sculpture class to the exhibition, where they discussed the controversy around monuments, the role art plays in national identity and who is memorialized in amonument and why.

To fill in the gaps of history through the lens of monuments, Tordella-Williams’ students researched, proposed and created maquettes celebrating marginalized communities and spaces.

“I wanted my students to be aware of how monuments can influence public narrative and community and to be conscious of that when they were proposing, creating one,” Tordella-Williams said. “It’s partly to imagine what goes into producing a large-scale, monumental-sized sculpture. It’s really good professional practice for them. It’s also to get them confident and say, ‘your ideas are totally valid and really interesting.’”

Assistant Professor of Social Science Education Dr. Jesús Tirado tasked his class with creating an educational guide for upper-level elementary, middle and high school students who visit the exhibit. The exercises in the guide encourage students to reflect and engage with the monuments by engage students at the intersection of art, history and meaning.

“The monuments you find are also going to be the names you find in our textbook,” Tirado said. “We spent a lot of time talking about going beyond what’s in the textbook, diving into primary sources, how do you structure that, how you get students to think about things, how do you then get them to inquire about the world around them.”

Following its stay at The Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, “Monuments and Myths” continues to tour around the country, at venues including the Frist Art Museum in Nashville and the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

The accompanying education guide and scholarly projects by Auburn faculty and students enhance the visitor experience through research-based reflection on the importance of art, history and story. Exhibitions change each semester, creating new avenues for research and active learning. The university art collection has more than 3,000 objects online at Auburn faculty interested in partnering with the museum may contact Chris Molinski, director of education, engagement and learning, to discuss Object Lab.

“Monuments and Myths: The America of Sculptors Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Daniel Chester French” is co-organized by the American Federation of Arts, Chesterwood, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in partnership with Saint-Gaudens National Historic Park. Major support for the accompanying publication has been provided by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. Support for the exhibition and the publication has been provided by the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.