By Bobbi Booker
In 1994, as a reporter for an NPR station, Museum Without Walls Executive Director Suzanne Lacey was assigned to cover the 30th anniversary bus tour of the Freedom Riders, a group of young people who desegregated the bus lines throughout the South in the early 1960s.
I see people all the time looking at the sculptures and you just know they want the story behind it and want to know who the artist is — Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy
She found herself with three of the Freedom Riders facing the front of Parchment State Prison in Mississippi. The men spoke with fierce emotion about the time 30 years earlier when they’d been arrested and forced to sleep on the cold prison floor. They spoke of being refused nourishment because of the freedom songs they sang to keep their souls strong. It was in this moment that the idea of living history as an educational tool began to take shape.
Museum Without Walls has grown out of Lacey’s press experiences. The program offers similar opportunities to young people to learn about history by visiting the places where atrocities occurred and by listening to living witnesses. While educational sites represent very different periods in history, they all offer a chance for youths to open a dialogue about hate, history and themselves.
Last week, the Fairmount Park Art Association launched a version of Museum Without Walls as a multi-platform, interactive audio experience for Philadelphia’s preeminent collection of public art and outdoor sculpture. This innovative program invites passersby to stop, look, listen and experience public art in a new light, through professionally produced three-minute interpretive audio segments revealing the untold histories of 51 outdoor sculptures at 35 stops along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Kelly Drive in Fairmount Park.
“I see people all the time looking at the sculptures and you just know they want the story behind it and want to know who the artist is,” said Gary Steuer, chief cultural officer of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. “The great thing about this is that it’s not the typical acoustic guide. Here you’re really learning the context and what the piece is about. For every one of these sculptures, there’s a whole story behind them. Each one of these audio programs is telling a story with people speaking in their own voice: be it the artists; the residents of the neighborhood; the people who were involved in the projects or the experts that know about the issues the sculpture is trying to address.”
The diverse narratives are told by over 100 authentic voices with personal connections to the artwork. Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “A Soldier’s Play,” has written a number of plays about racism and African-American military life. Fuller, a lifelong Philadelphian, lends his voice to the commentary about the All Wars Memorial to Colored Soldiers and Sailors, which honors the state’s African-American military men who had served the United States in wartime.
“I used to ride by on my bicycle when I was a kid, and no one knew where this monument was and it was in Fairmount Park,” recalled Fuller. “Now, the lovely thing is that it’s sitting in front of the Franklin Institute on Logan Square so anybody that comes to this town can take a look at it. And it’s really something that we all need to pay attention to because it’s Black soldiers and we need to pay attention to them.”
“Museum Without Walls” is available to the public for free on the street by cell phone by calling (215) 399-9000, mobile application, audio download, or streaming audio on the official program Web site.