Wednesday, May 16, 2012
May 16, 2012: NEASA Colloquium Highlights, Part Three
[On Saturday, May 12th, I had the honor to run the second annual New England ASA Spring Colloquium. We met in Salem, first at The House of the Seven Gables and then out and about in the historic district, and talked about historic sites, public history and memory, place and identity, and much more. In this week’s series I’ll be briefly highlighting each of our six featured speakers and a bit on his or her interesting and inspiring talk and ideas. Your feedback and ideas are welcome too!
Our third speaker, Esther Thyssen, delved into the many complex contexts and meanings behind Salem’s plethora of public statues and sculptures.
Esther’s a thoughtful and talented art historian, and in her talk she did a wonderful job highlighting and analyzing many of the details and choices that make for great public art (as in the truly unique and compelling Salem Witch Trials Memorial) or, well, crappy statues (as in the Bewitched Statue, in which Elizabeth Montgomery is ostensibly put in conversation with the Salem Witch Trials). In keeping with the Colloquium’s focal points, she also very effectively linked the individual statues and sculptures to the places and spaces around them, and considered how they impact our experiences of a place like historic and contemporary Salem.
Yet Esther took her talk and ideas one step further, in a particularly challenging and important way. It’s all too easy to critique the crass commercialism of the Bewitched Statue, for example—but the truth, as Esther nicely noted, is that the initial impulse behind a work, even the funding and government actions that allow for its creation, don’t dictate how it’s responded to, what it means for those who encounter it and make it part of their experience of a place. Her arguments that all of a place’s public art becomes part of how its landscape is inscribed, but also that the inscriptions continue to evolve and shift with each arrival and perspective, are very important for us American Studiers to keep in mind, as we consider the identities and meanings of every space around us.
Next speaker tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any statues or memorials you’d especially highlight?