PORTLAND – If people visiting Portland tried to learn about the city’s history from its outdoor public art, what would they think?
They would think white men are considered important to the city’s history, with statues of poets, a filmmaker, soldiers and a congressman gracing Portland’s public spaces.
They would understand the importance of the Civil War to Portland when visiting the centrally located “Our Lady of Victories” in Monument Square topped with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and war.
The once-controversial statue outside Hadlock Field would inform them that Portland’s families are small and attend baseball games. While strolling at Temple and Middle streets, they’d see that people who go to movies like lobstermen (or that lobstermen go to movies). Visits to local churches would let them know that some women are believed to be saints.
Portland Freedom Trail markers tell the stories of 19th-century African Americans, and the city still celebrates temperance with the statue “Little Water Girl” inside the Portland Public Library. The statue honors Lillian Ames Stevens, vice president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, who was active in Portland’s reforms at the turn of the 20th century. A drive to the Cape Elizabeth Public Library’s statue of Olympian Joan Benoit Samuelson shows that Mainers respect women who run.
Public art serves many purposes: It represents civic ideals, supports artists and provokes controversy. Abstract art, like “Tracing the Fore,” recently removed from Boothby Square, or the Veterans Memorial Bridge’s reed poles attempts to give a city character as well as beauty.
But often, abstract art does not escape criticism or discussion. Misplacing “Tracing the Fore” in an Old Port square was well intentioned but widely disliked. The design of the new bridge between Portland and South Portland was controversial, but the images of reed poles seem to have won the day.
Intentionally historical work raises other issues surrounding who really founded Portland. Why have an Eastern Prom monument celebrating only George Cleeve and his partner Richard Tucker as Portland’s founders? Didn’t those men have wives and families who also worked to help found the city?
The same could be said for the labels Portland Landmarks puts on historical houses using only men’s names. Who else lived there? Who raised the children and oversaw the cleaning and cooking? Who were the domestics who did the work?
Well, whose history is this, anyway? An observant visitor, who reads plaques and notices dates of installation, will see a changing history and changing views of Portland’s past. In the 1930s, the federal government, through the Works Progress Administration and other New Deal projects, promoted the idea of public art relating to its community. WPA murals in the Portland and South Portland post offices illustrate local historical events.
Recent memorials tell of tragic events elsewhere in the world from which Mainers have migrated. Memorials commemorate the Armenian Genocide (erected in 2003 on Cumberland Avenue near the Franklin Arterial); the Holocaust (near Temple Beth El, also erected in 2003); and the Irish Famine (in the Western Cemetery; erected in 1999). These are all relatively recent memorials, testifying to a changing view of what defines Portland’s collective — as well as group — histories.
This changing definition of our collective past is ongoing and necessarily incomplete. Still, the process could be strengthened by a commitment from the city’s Public Art Committee and the Maine Arts Commission to include history as a focus of public art.
That art could include historic individuals and/or groups, such as the women who worked in fish packing factories and as domestics in homes and hotels; longshoremen, who built Portland economically and socially; nurses who have worked in hospitals and homes; and teachers who educated generations of Mainers. Doesn’t Munjoy Hill deserve a monument commemorating the new and old immigrants who have called it home?
Saint Joseph’s College in Standish has recently installed a statue of St. Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy, who established the college. Southern Maine Community College has the advantage of being near Bug Light Park’s memorial to the World War ll shipbuilders — many of them women — in South Portland.
However, while the University of Southern Maine has honored its history with names on buildings, athletic fields and gardens, its public sculpture is rigorously nonrepresentational, with the exception of the soon-to-be-moved rhinoceros by sculptor Bernard Langlais.
These abstract sculptures have little connection to the school’s or the community’s history. Surely, the Portland, Gorham and Lewiston-Auburn campuses could install public art, including statues, that teaches students that history belongs to the people, and higher education is part of history.
Eileen Eagan is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.