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Blog Post

Spatial Justice and the Public Humanities

By Marisa Angell Brown
July 13, 2021
Spatial Justice and the Public Humanities

Srebrenica Memorial Center, July 3, 2020. Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images.

If 2020 was the year of monument removal, 2021 is shaping up to be the year of monument task forces and commissions as cities and states across the country establish processes to review and remove problematic public art from public space. At the same time, calls to return National Park system land to First Nations tribes and to remove highways that obliterated neighborhoods of color in the 1950s and 60s are suddenly on the table as possibilities. We are at the start of a massive reconstruction of public space that could be on par, in terms of scale, with the period of urban renewal, when those highways first went in.

What does this have to do with the public humanities? A lot.

When we use the word “public” in the public humanities, we tend to think first of people and communities. But “public” also signals space, a place that is open and accessible. I’d add equitable too—a place where multiple communities feel welcome and acknowledged. Historically, public history and the public humanities have not always focused on this second definition of the “public.” We tend to privilege texts, objects, and oral testimony—but seldom think of space as a crucial agent and arena for the work of public humanities.

"Spatial justice is making its way into public history, preservation, and public art practice."

The term “spatial justice” comes out of geography and urban studies. The concept is simple: power and privilege are reflected in space, so any move to achieve social justice will have a spatial or geographic element. The fields that have embraced spatial justice as a North Star are architecture, planning, and policy—fields that already think spatially. But this is changing. Spatial justice is making its way into public history, preservation, and public art practice. I recently moderated a roundtable conversation with three social practice artists and when we met on Zoom beforehand to discuss the panel, I shared a few questions I thought I would ask them, following their artist talks. Their eyes lit up when we got into a conversation about what spatial justice means and how monument removal and new commemorative art rupture geographies of power. One artist said that he hadn’t previously thought of his work in terms of spatial justice, but that it neatly encapsulated his intent.

Many public humanities practitioners are similarly doing spatial justice work without naming it directly. Monument Lab began in 2015 as a Philadelphia project that invited hundreds of residents to imagine new monuments for the city. They set up shop in a courtyard near City Hall and collected drawings and descriptions that add up to a collectively-built archive revealing a spectrum of feelings and thoughts about public space, ownership, and identity. Many of the maps, interestingly, were deeply critical of monuments, and suggested alternative ways to build community and represent community histories. Since then, Monument Lab has expanded its programs, and now commissions and installs artwork and leads workshops for public agencies and organizations on critical, community-based public art practice. Last year, it was awarded the first grant from the Mellon Foundation’s $250 million Monuments Project, and is now working to create a first-ever audit of the country’s monuments. You won’t find the phrase “spatial justice” in its mission or program descriptions, but I would argue that spatial justice is at the core of this organization’s work.

Another program that is transforming our sense of history through spatial practice is the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, which was launched in 2017 to support the preservation of historic places connected to Black history. Now in its fourth awards cycle, the Fund has supported projects at nearly one hundred sites across the country—including the historic Vernon A.M.E. Church in Tulsa, the only remaining Black-owned structure that dates from the Black Wall Street era and escaped destruction in the 1921 race massacre, and While We Are Still Here, a public history project in Harlem that is working on a series of historic markers “to make Harlem’s history unavoidable.” Many of the organizations that have received funding combine public history and preservation with community activism, providing direct services and supporting justice initiatives at the policy level. Spatial justice, right?

"Spatial thinking is already embedded in public humanities theories and practices—it just isn’t always explicitly named. But it should be."

Globally, organizations that are members of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience are doing similar work, engaging the public with traumatic or difficult histories that, often, have been erased, hidden or unacknowledged at historic sites, such as the Maison des Esclaves in Senegal, the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, and the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whether they use the term or not, these organizations are all agents of spatial justice. Public memory work may be most effective when it involves the preservation or creation of sites and spaces that remake the public landscape, redistributing power geographically.

Spatial thinking is already embedded in public humanities theories and practices—it just isn’t always explicitly named. But it should be. What are the questions we need to ask ourselves, if we are to think spatially? When we build projects, we are used to thinking socially and thematically, making sure that we invite diverse perspectives into partnership—but we should also be challenging ourselves to do public humanities work in diverse zip codes, not in the same few neighborhoods where our anchor institutions are located. We should consider how to design projects that produce new knowledge and new geographies, and we should ask whether, or to what extent, our public-facing projects enact, expand, or possibly diminish spatial justice. In other words, we need to take spatial impacts into account when we assess public humanities projects.

If you take a look at the key journals, conferences, and departments where theories and practices of spatial justice are developed and discussed, you won’t find much crossover with public humanities folks—yet. But it may be that the field of public humanities will come to play as key a role as design, planning, and policy in creating more just and equitable public spaces through public history and public art interventions, radical heritage projects, decolonized museum spaces and practices, and community-owned archives. It already seems to be happening.

Marisa Angell Brown is the Assistant Director for Programs at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage and Adjunct Lecturer in the Public Humanities at Brown University. She is the author of “Preservation’s Expanded Field” in Doing Public Humanities (Routledge, 2020) and is on Twitter @marisa_angell.

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