The Future Of Historical Plaques – And How Emersonians Shape It

The+Future+Of+Historical+Plaques+-+And+How+Emersonians+Shape+It

Photo: Hongyu Liu

By Gabel Strickland

In 1807, it was where John Quincy Adams envisioned the laws that would govern our nation for centuries to come. Now, it’s where Emerson students get Starbucks coffee in the morning. These two realities are separated by centuries of time, yet tied together by a single metal plaque.   

The 62 on The Park building now holds apartments, a FedEx store, and restaurants, including a Starbucks frequented by many Emerson students. But the plaque on the side of the building commemorates it as the original site of the home of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States. 

This plaque on 62 is one of many similar plaques dotting the city of Boston. Emerson’s stretch of buildings along Boylston Street alone includes three historical plaques. 

Historical plaques both document the past and take our society into the future––and Emerson students are learning how to be a part of this and create plaques that represent not just yesterday, but tomorrow. They aim to help Boston juggle being a city that prides itself both on being full of history and forward-thinking. 

Though most people don’t consider plaques for longer than a glance, they symbolically say much more than what they say literally. Historical plaques are a reflection not just of a society’s past, but of both the potentially problematic and progressive aspects of a society’s present state.

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Individual citizens can lobby for the government to create plaques to commemorate history they find important, which gives plaques and other memorials the ability to reflect shifts in social consciousness. 

Confederate memorials in the South, for example, have long been revered by many. However, some of them, such as a statue of Robert E. Lee that was removed in Richmond two months ago, are being taken down with mounting public sentiment condemning the Confederacy’s efforts to preserve the institution of slavery. 

Meanwhile, in the last few years, institutions including universities, churches, counties, and museums added plaques to their facilities acknowledging the Indigeonous people of the land on which their current institutions are built. 

This emphasis on incorporating social justice into memorials is at the heart of the Emerson College course Topics In Art History: Boston Memorials Revisited and Reimagined: Public Art and Virtual Modeling, taught jointly by Emerson professors Anya Belkina and Cheryl Knight. 

“Not just in Boston, but even in the United States, the amount of memorials that we have are overwhelmingly to white men and wealthy white men,” said Knight, who specializes in public art and museum studies. “And so we were like, ‘Well, what does it look like if we were going to try and—not on a surface level—say let’s sow some social justice issues in there, build the whole class around the perspective of social justice through the memorial landscape.’ And so that’s what we did.” 

The class does so with all sorts of monuments, not just plaques. For example, one of the class’s projects concerned the Boston Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue, which pays homage to three women: the second First Lady Abigail Adams, the first published African American poet in the U.S., Phillis Wheatley, and women’s rights activist Lucy Stone.

Students were assigned to imagine a change they would make to the memorial to enhance its social justice components and came up with a number of creative ideas such as adding another female historical figure, changing the positioning of the figures, or even redesigning the memorial so someone could sit in it themselves. 

This reflection of the public’s growing social consciousness combats one potentially problematic aspect of our society that plaques otherwise reflect––tendency to let wealthy landowners potentially perverse historical narratives. This is a problem that can be observed not far from Emerson campus.

Maddie Webster is a PhD student in Boston University’s American and New England Studies Program who specializes in urban history, Boston history, and historic preservation. Her article “Redeveloping Place and Narrative at the Site of the Liberty Tree,” explains how in 1849 wealthy developer David Sears bought what used to be the site of the Liberty Tree. Shortly after, he put up a plaque memorializing an idyllic version of the tree’s history to emphasize his “liberty” as a property owner, downplaying the chaotic revolts that took place around the tree.  

“There’s two different types of plaques. There’s plaques put up by a lot of preservations and organizations,” Webster said. “But then you have in the 19th century, early 20th century, a lot of plaques that weren’t necessarily monitored or like vetted in the same way. People who had money were able to develop a property and insert some kind of plaque, some kind of inscription into the building.” 

Democratization of the plaque creation process means the narrative that historical plaques create can be less curated by wealthy landowners and more a public effort to memorialize what is important to them going forward. Emerson students studying public memorials have a chance to aid this process, perhaps starting within their own school, where some may petition for or even design a plaque acknowledging the native people of the land on which Emerson was built (much like the aforementioned universities). 

“In the past few decades, we’ve seen more people kind of going to these preservation groups and saying, ‘I think that we want to have a more representative story here. So we either need to be more conscious about things that we’re preserving or broaden our interpretation.’ So those stories are told,” says Genna Kane, a PhD student at Boston University’s American and New England Studies Program. 

In such ways, plaques solidify society’s growth ideologically, but they also aid society’s growth industrially. Tearing down old structures to build new ones is a natural part of a city’s growth, but installing plaques is an easy and efficient way to keep history alive in the new environment. Plaques give people a greater sense of appreciation for the area they live in while still letting that area be livable, like at the Starbucks on Boylston and Tremont.

“Everyone has their unique experience when they might be walking down one of these cobblestone streets on Beacon Hill and then they weren’t necessarily out searching for history, but they just sort of stumble upon it. That’s a very common experience,” Webster said. “These private moments where you kind of stumble upon some kind of marker or perhaps an old building that doesn’t necessarily have a marker, but you’re intrigued by it. 

“Those intimate moments are really special,” she said.  

Plaques can be slapped on the side of a building, but they aren’t always confined to a building’s exterior walls. In fact, plaques have been expanding as an art form. Dr. Nick Juravich, assistant professor of History and Labor Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston, notes that physical markers can be incorporated into a wide variety of public history interactions and activities. This is something that Knight observes in her classroom daily.

“You’re seeing people push back against the conventions of the text,” Knight said. “Not that they don’t want text anymore, but what kind of text and where you would read it and just in general the use of things like QR codes or websites in conjunction with the memorials. So you don’t have to necessarily feel like you have to read everything on site.” 

Plaques and other markers have indeed been experimenting with implementing technology into their designs. Dr. Juravich worked on a mural in El Monte, California that commemorated preexisting murals and local history that had been erased. The mural, created by the South El Monte Arts Posse, included QR codes that led users to SEMAP’s documentary about El Monte’s murals. Dr. Juravich says that these codes are also often used to connect viewers with more historical content, much like virtual reality technology aims to do. 

“The other thing that’s really at the very kind of horizon of public history that people are playing with are augmented reality and virtual reality things,” Juravich said. “All of a sudden you’re looking into the past historical photo or you’re looking at people moving through it. It’s kind of a cool idea. At the same time, of course, it raises a whole host of questions about what kind of content that would be who would curate it.” 

The answer to that question could potentially be Emerson students. Virtual reality is something that is used extensively in Belkina and Knight’s curriculum to explore expanding the functions of plaques and other monuments. 

“One of the things that’s nice about VR is it’s not the ‘real world.’ Issues of funding and approvals go away, but it allows people to think big first. It’s such a cliche, but like that blue sky thinking of what’s possible,” Knight said, before adding that “VR is also a great visual communication tool for us because if you work in the arts, sometimes things can’t always be put into words.” 

Knight’s course will be available to take during the Fall 2022 semester, and she hopes that her students will take these ideas to heart as they learn to create historical monuments that are forward-thinking in design and purpose. 

“A lot of people would say [the class] just kind of changed their thinking on everything. When you walk around the city, they weren’t just accepting things at face value anymore. You’re thinking about ‘how did this memorial get there? Why? What was the purpose? Who paid for it or pushed for it?’” Knight said. These are, we hope, ideas that are becoming ingrained and that people feel a kind of an ethical obligation, really. You know, it’s kind of a moral obligation.”