Using Public Space to Expand Storytelling on the National Mall

New exhibit aims to increase representation by telling important stories of the nation.

The National Mall in Washington, D.C. is many things: a symbol of democracy, a gathering space for First Amendment practices, a memorial gallery, and also at its essence, a park. As of August 18, it is now also an outdoor exhibition space.

First Art Exhibition at National Mall

With works from six artists, Beyond Granite: Pulling Together, is the first of its kind to be hosted at the National Mall. The idea was born at the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and later developed into a collaboration with the Trust for the National Mall, the National Park Service, and Monument Lab, with funding from the Mellon Foundation's Monuments Project initiative. The result is a unique achievement in planning to usher in a new era of curated exhibitions, and thereby a more diverse collection of stories from American history, at the National Mall.

Marcel Acosta is the executive director of the NCPC and chair of APA's Urban Design and Preservation Division. With NCPC since 2001, Acosta has overseen the full arch of Beyond Granite's development. We spoke with Mr. Acosta about the exhibition, the process of making it a reality, and whether we can expect to see more curated artwork at the National Mall.

DINA WALTERS: I understand that the Beyond Granite exhibition is an effort to address the limited space available for future permanent memorials at the National Mall. How did the idea for a temporary installation come about, and how would you say that the idea for Beyond Granite developed?

MARCEL ACOSTA: NCPC is responsible for planning on federal land in Washington, D.C., and the region, including the National Mall. We are the planning agency that reviews and approves new permanent memorials and museums on the National Mall. We are like a traditional planning agency that reviews projects but also has long-range planning responsibilities.

We are trying to address two different things with Beyond Granite. For one, we wanted to encourage more diversity and representation in the stories told on the National Mall. One of the most important functions of the National Mall is to tell stories that are important to the nation.

We have conducted several studies, including a comprehensive inventory in 2011, to better understand what sorts of memorials exist in our capital city and the various categories. It was no surprise that over half of them deal with military conquest or military activities. Many of our memorials are of white statesmen and presidents. Our country is so much more in terms of the diversity of people and experiences. To encourage more diversity and representation on the National Mall, we needed to provide different opportunities to tell those stories.

Let Freedom Ring by Paul Ramírez Jonas. Photo by Marcel Acosta

Let Freedom Ring by Paul Ramírez Jonas. Photo by Marcel Acosta

Second, we're also responsible for protecting the National Mall's historic open spaces. Congress amended the Commemorative Works Act [in 2002] and enacted The Reserve, which created a no-build zone on the cross axes of the National Mall. It does not allow for additional, permanent memorials and museums within that space. We have identified other spaces near The Reserve that can accommodate new memorials and monuments, but we are talking about a handful of sites that must last us generations. We are also concerned about future generations being able to tell their stories in this space; there are future important events or people who will do amazing things that the country will need to recognize.

The National Mall functions as a very important open space and storytelling space. Today, there are different ways to tell stories on the Mall, museums, permanent memorials, and First Amendment activities. Still, we thought that temporary public art, as a complement, protects the open spaces of the Mall. These installations would not be there in perpetuity, but provide opportunities for artists and sponsors and other folks who want to tell their stories, to raise something of importance that they want the rest of the nation to know. That's the genesis of Beyond Granite. Behind the six art pieces you see in today's exhibition, many other stories could be told in temporary form over time.

WALTERS: That's wonderful. Since Beyond Granite is a pilot exhibition, and referring to what you said about how many other stories can be told, is the ultimate goal for this to be an annual exhibition?

ACOSTA: That is one of the things we will determine after this has been completed. This is a demonstration. We are using this pilot exhibition to test this idea. Believe it or not, this is the first curated art exhibition on the National Mall.

WALTERS: Yes, I saw that in The Washington Post. That is fantastic.

ACOSTA: We are trying to understand the artists' experience as they do this, the public reaction, and how temporary art may complement other things at the Mall.

Of Thee We Sing by artist vanessa german. Photo by Marcel Acosta.

Of Thee We Sing by artist vanessa german. Photo by Marcel Acosta.

Some of these pieces of art directly relate to the permanent memorials that you see out there today. For instance, there's a piece by vanessa german, called Of Thee We Sing, about Marian Anderson's historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial in segregated Washington, D.C. It represents an important moment in history that took place at the Lincoln Memorial that connects a lot of issues.

The Lincoln Memorial is also the location where, in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. [German's piece] is additive because it provides more context for the memorial. There are layers of history that occur at a place, and people over time will have different experiences and different recollections of it.

It allows people to have that perspective of how, over time, some things have changed and some things have not, and allows them to reflect on history and how much more work we must do to achieve a more equal and just society.

WALTERS: I can see in the way that you talk about [Beyond Granite] that you have found the process and the outcome to be very rewarding.

ACOSTA: Yes, and I think the process is still ongoing. We've just started this demonstration, but it is rewarding because this idea started at our planning agency. We had public panels on Beyond Granite and the potential of temporary art as early as 2011. This idea has been raised many times in our planning studies to accommodate our twin goals of protecting the National Mall's open spaces and allowing for additional stories to be told.

Like all good planning efforts, you must bring supporters and partners to help execute the idea. In this case, our partners include our colleagues at the National Park Service, the stewards of the National Mall, who've embraced this idea. We also asked the Trust for the National Mall, the National Park Service's not-for-profit partner for the National Mall, to lead the program and partner with us to write the Mellon Foundation grant proposal. [The Trust] is the one presenting the exhibition [Beyond Granite], along with our curators, Monument Lab, who did the hard work over the last 10 months getting this exhibition accomplished. I can't give them enough credit.

The Soil You See... by Wendy Red Star. Photo by Marcel Acosta

The Soil You See... by Wendy Red Star. Photo by Marcel Acosta

Our people and culture are very diverse, and the country's demographics have become even more diverse over time. So, to the extent that this space allows you to tell more stories is hugely important to the public. It is gratifying as a planning agency to have that sort of responsibility to promote equity and inclusion in this important symbolic space, which is a very important part of what we're trying to accomplish with Beyond Granite. We aim to design a program where people share their stories and experiences.

WALTERS: You mentioned the survey in 2011. Is that how far back the seed for this exhibition goes?

ACOSTA: Yes, I would say this idea goes back over a decade. The overdevelopment of the Mall itself has been an issue since the early 2000s. Congress created The Reserve and, as part of federal law, made sure that we, along with the National Park Service and the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, have stewardship responsibility over the National Mall.

WALTERS: If there are planners in smaller municipalities with limited resources that could feasibly raise funds for a similar exhibition what recommendations would you make?

ACOSTA: While the National Mall's scale and purpose are unique, many communities already have permanent memorials and local histories important to their communities. They can look at temporary public art to express additional historical facets of their community...What's important to that community? Who are the people who contributed to the success of that community? It is also an opportunity to reflect on their more difficult periods. Public art allows us to have those conversations. It's a way of sharing people's observations or interpretations or how they feel that event or that person might have impacted their lives today.

We talk a lot in the planning profession about placemaking. Some of the best places are authentic ones that tell stories.

Who was there before, what events occurred in this space, who lived here in the past and who will live here tomorrow, and what are our aspirations for the future? The best type of placemaking speaks to those issues because every place and every city wants to be unique. In this sort of placemaking activity, where you discuss history and culture and how that can be expressed in terms of how it is designed, people tend to flock to those spaces.

Designers and planners have a huge role in making people feel welcome in public spaces. We hope that people see themselves in these six pieces and that their histories are represented at the National Mall. To me, that's what good planning and design are about.

Top image: iStock/Getty Images Plus - miralex

About the author
Dina Walters is part of APA's Prioritize Equity team.

August 28, 2023

By Dina Walters