‘Which stories are absent?’: Monument Lab will help Sacred Red Rock project reimagine the future of Robinson Park

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Paul Farber, co-founder and director of Monument Lab, speaks as part of a presentation at the Burge Union on Oct. 20, 2023.

How can our country’s monuments tell a more complete history?

That’s the question those at the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Monument Lab seek to answer — and the question that was posed to an audience at the University of Kansas on Friday regarding the future of Robinson Park, which until recently was home to a prayer rock that’s since been returned to the Kaw Nation.

In his presentation at KU’s Burge Union — titled “Telling the Full Story: Power and Presence in Public” — Paul Farber, the co-founder and director of Monument Lab, said that every place contains layers of history, and he is wary of any that claims it has a single story. He said Monument’s Lab work considers which stories belong in places but are missing — and that’s the issue his team will explore at a workshop Saturday regarding the future of Robinson Park.

“Which stories are present? Which stories are absent? Which stories have a shadow casting there?” he said. “Which stories might be rendered in bronze or marble or official signage, and which stories are felt and lived?”

Monument Lab has helped re-envision monuments and create new art installations across the country, including a recent installation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. As part of the presentation, Farber shared insights from Monument Lab’s work and how communities have critically examined monuments and their connections to systems of power and public memory.

The presentation was organized by the Sacred Red Rock Project, the team that worked to secure the return of the prayer rock to the Kaw Nation, and the KU Institute for Policy & Social Research.

The 28-ton red quartzite boulder, known to the Kaw as Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe (pronounced “EE(n) ZHOO-jay wah-HO-bay”), was taken from the Kaw’s traditional homelands nearly a century ago and made into a monument to the white settlers of Lawrence. Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe was returned to the tribe in August after a multi-year effort.

Now, the Sacred Red Rock Project team is leading a process to reimagine Robinson Park. Lawrence artist and community activist Dave Loewenstein, who is part of the project’s leadership team, said he and fellow leadership team member Pauline Eads Sharp, chairperson of the Kanza Heritage Society, reached out to Monument Lab early on, and he said he was excited about Monument’s Lab visit to Lawrence and upcoming workshop with the team.

“It’s very important for our project,” Loewenstein said. “… We’re going to see the Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe project in a different context.”

Workers position the prayer rock in Robinson Park Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023, after it was removed from its base and laid on its side.

The Sacred Red Rock project is led by members of the Kaw Nation in collaboration with the City of Lawrence, University of Kansas, Spencer Museum of Art, Kanza Heritage Society and other partners, and it is funded by the Mellon Foundation Monuments Project Initiative.

One of Monument Lab’s efforts has been its National Monument Audit, which was produced in partnership with the Mellon Foundation. Farber said the audit ultimately included about 50,000 monuments, which were found to focus predominantly on white males and to commonly feature themes of war and conquest.

As part of the audit, Monument Lab looked at what was left out from those monuments. Farber said of the nearly 6,000 Civil War monuments, only 1% of the plaques or records associated with those monuments mentioned slavery. Of the 2,000 Confederate monuments, only 3% mention defeat. Of the monuments to pioneers, only 15% mention Indigenous peoples. Farber emphasized that over half of the pioneer monuments were dedicated after 1930.

“So this is after years of prolonged, armed displacement and disenfranchisement of Native tribes across this country,” he said.

The former Lawrence monument followed this pattern. Iⁿ’zhúje’waxóbe was set with a plaque honoring Lawrence settlers that did not mention the Kaw Nation or any other tribes and was dedicated in 1929. The park is named after Charles Robinson, who was among the group who settled Lawrence and the first governor of Kansas.

Farber noted that Kansas takes its name from the Kaw people, also known as the Kanza, who once called the state their home but were forcibly displaced. The park, which overlooks the Kaw River, currently contains a cannon and benches. When imagining the future of the park, Farber said the point is not to look for one story, but a representation of the complex stories that overlap there.

“We are not looking for one story to live in the park,” he said. “We’re also not looking for one manner of remembering or reconciliation. If there are layers and layers of myth, misremembering and displacement, then we actually have to counter that with layers and layers of truth telling, of coalition, of finding one another.”

The workshop with the Sacred Red Rock project team on Saturday will be focused on the challenges and opportunities presented to the community as it begins the process of reimagining Robinson Park. Loewenstein told the Journal-World that Farber would help lead the workshop, which will not be open to the public, but rather will be attended by a small group of invited guests from the community as well as the project team. More information regarding the project is available on its website, sacredredrock.com.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

Sacred Red Rock project team members Pauline Eads Sharp, chairperson of the Kanza Heritage Society, and Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein speak as part of a presentation at the Burge Union on Oct. 20, 2023.


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