Can a 39-foot-tall art installation redress the tarnished legacy of former President Woodrow Wilson? That’s the question raised by a recently dedicated sculpture at the plaza outside the home of the Woodrow Wilson School on the campus of Princeton University.
The short answer is no, but not because Wilson’s racist views cannot or should not be addressed directly and honestly. It’s rather because this particular installation, years and millions of dollars in the making, fails to deliver its intended message to its viewers.
The background: In 2015 some Princeton undergraduates dug into Woodrow Wilson’s past – he was president of Princeton, governor of New Jersey, and president of the United States from 1913 to 1921. Wilson created the motto “Princeton in the Nation’s Service.” As a leading advocate of the League of Nations, who vowed that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” Wilson won the Nobel Prize in 1919.
For a long time that was how Wilson was portrayed on the Princeton campus. But a deeper look shows that President Wilson encouraged racially discriminatory hiring practices by the federal government, and segregation of black workers already hired by the government. Wilson declined to offer his support to the women’s suffrage movement. The defense that Wilson was just a man of his times didn’t hold much water. His views and positions were challenged by many people at the time. Needless to say, some present-day undergraduates were enraged, taking over the office of the university president at one point to demand that Wilson’s name be removed from the title of the prestigious School of Public and International Affairs.
The immediate dispute got remanded to an alumni-student committee, which decided in 2016 that the Wilson name should remain on the school but that the historical record should be restated to show his full range of views, along with the voices of his critics, who previously were not widely heard. Landscape architect and sculptor Walter Hood, whose work includes several other large scale installations intended to address racially charged histories at other institutions, was commissioned to create the Princeton sculpture. And the university chose to place the artwork at the main entrance to the heavily trafficked plaza immediately in front of the building housing the Woodrow Wilson School.
When I first heard about the installation – last April when Hood appeared at the university to discuss his artistic intentions – I wondered what impact the piece might have on the overall dynamics of the popular plaza where it would be located. The Woodrow Wilson plaza is at a crossing of several pedestrian paths and faces busy Washington Road. On warm days students and townspeople are lured by the shallow reflecting pool, where toddlers can get their first dip, to abundant seating, and to shaded areas on the perimeter of the pool. It’s big enough so that skateboarders can work their magic at a safe distance – only university administrators, wary of potential lawsuits, seem to be nervous. The plaza has all the characteristics of a successful open space, except food. But maybe, I mused, the new sculpture would at least provide some food for thought.
So what impact has the new sculpture, 39 feet tall, had on the Wilson School plaza? > Read More …