Rosemary Arnold is an IUPUI Museums Studies student who participated in Richard McCoy’s Collections Care and Management course last fall.
On Thursday of last week, my classmates and I from IUPUI’s Fall 2010 Collections Care and Management course, along with our instructor Richard, were honored by both the Indiana Senate and House of Representatives for the work we did in documenting the Indiana State House Public Art Collection. Senator Jim Merritt and Representative Tom Saunders sponsored Concurrent Resolutions to recognize our work.
While we were in the House of Representatives to receive our Resolution, Representative Saunders said something that struck me. He said, “I’ve walked past some of these statues for fourteen years, and I never knew the full story about why they were here.”
I think a lot of us have had a similar experience, and that idea got me thinking. How is it possible to walk by something every day and never really see it? Why are we content to know that something does exist, but not why it exists? Is there any way to stop ourselves from becoming so comfortable with our surroundings that we hardly notice them anymore?
A lot of public art falls into the sad category of things we know are there but forget to notice. This is one of the reasons why Heritage Preservation embarked in 1989 on the ambitious Save Outdoor Sculpture! program to get volunteers involved in documenting public art in their communities. The hope was that documentation would be the first step in caring for the art in our public sphere. It was in that same spirit that the WikiProject Public Art was created by Jenny Mikulay and Richard McCoy for the Fall 2009 Collections Care and Management course. To pilot the project, the class documented all of the public art on the IUPUI campus. (A student of theirs wrote about her experience here.)
This past fall, my classmates and I participated in the second incarnation of this project. We researched 42 sculptures in and around the State House. When we started our work, the good folks at the State House Tour Office had almost no information on many of the sculptures. Some of the artworks had been outside anyone’s notice for so long that nobody knew their real names.
That’s not the case anymore. One of the class’s best successes was from Alex Carrier, who discovered that the statue long known as Ceres is actually called Indiana (pictured above) and was featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of complacency with our surroundings, and it’s something we’re all guilty of. But the thing about public art is that it’s usually there because it represents something about us. It tells the story of a community. Think about it. For me, when I travel to a new city, the first thing I want to do is get acquainted with it. I wander, trying to get a feel for the place. More often than not, the art in a city tells me everything I need to know. Knowing whether its statues of past political leaders, informal folk art, religious icons, or avant-garde murals gives me a sense of a place’s culture. It helps me understand why it is the way it is. After all, those people put it there for a reason, so it must say something about them.
What does the art at the State House say about us? Why do we have a statue of Oliver P. Morton guarding the building’s doors? Why is there a bust of Colonel Richard Owen, who oversaw a Civil War prison camp, flanking the rotunda? Why is there a sculpture of a giant metal tulip tree leaf across the street? Knowing the answers to these questions might just help us have a better understanding of ourselves and the community we live in.
Being recognized by the Indiana Senate and House of Representatives was a tremendous honor that my classmates and I won’t soon forget. We hope that the work we did will provide a starting point for further research and documentation of the art collection at the State House. We encourage anyone to view the results of our project (or, better yet, add to them!) right here and use the resources we created to discover more about the art, its subjects, and the artists who created it.