Covering the Mall

The National Mall has seen so much history, from its early days as envisioned by L’Enfant in 1791, to its realization as an open park in 1902. For more than a century, it has been filled with celebrations, demonstrations, and ordinary people enjoying it as a park. One of the most interesting uses of the Mall is for social art projects on a grand scale. Here are three projects we’ve seen in recent years, including one last weekend.

The Monument Quilt

The Monument Quilt was displayed from May 31-June 2 as a “force upsetting rape culture.” The quilt was made over the last five years, by more than 3,000 survivors of sexual violence creating squares that tell their stories. Parts of the quilt have been displayed in 33 cities over the past few years, but this display on the Mall is the only time that the full quilt was on view.

It took many volunteers to lay out the quilt.

Between 12th and 13th Street, the quilt was laid out in rows, where people could walk up and down. Between 13th and 14th Street, the quilt squares were laid out to form the words “You are not alone” in English and Spanish (although we couldn’t get an aerial view of it).

The individual squares tell the stories of survivors, some written, some painted, some stitched, many heart-breaking, and when taken as a whole, designed to create a public healing place.

One Million Bones

For three days in June 2013, more than one million bones were laid out on the Mall to create “a symbolic mass grave and a collective protest against ongoing genocides and mass atrocities in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan, Burma, and Somalia.”

The bones were handmade by thousands of artists, students, and educators over a three-year period. They were made of a variety of materials, much of it bio-degradable: fabric, clay, paper, wood, glass, or beads. It was a project of The Art of Revolution, an organization aiming to create social change through art projects and installations.

The AIDS Quilt

The AIDS memorial quilt is the largest community art project in the world – it was started in 1985 and is still on-going. It was first displayed in D.C. on the Mall in 1987, and last displayed in 2012, which is when these photos were taken:

The quilt squares have been sewn into larger panels, and the volunteers have become very efficient in laying out the quilt, and taking it up again when there is a threat of rain.

The quilt was started in San Francisco by Cleve Jones, a prominent gay rights activist, to remember those who had died of AIDS. The first display of the quilt was on the National Mall in 1987, where it attracted more than half a million visitors in a single weekend. The project immediately grew in popularity, attracting contributions of quilt squares and donations to help address the AIDS crisis from all over the country.

After the initial display of the quilt, it went on a national tour, and was again displayed in D.C. on the Ellipse in 1988 and in 1989. As it grew and grew, most displays of it could only show part of the quilt. The full quilt was again displayed on the Mall in 1992 and 1996, which was the last time there was enough room to display it in its entirety.

In 2012, the quilt was displayed on the Mall as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. By this time, the quilt had enough panels to cover one million square feet and weighed 54 tons. The quilt panels were laid out over a large area of the Mall, but this could only include part of the quilt. Parts of it were simultaneously displayed at 40 other locations in the D.C. area, including covering the floor of the Great Hall at the National Building Museum.

The quilt continues to travel the country, with frequent displays of some squares from it. It is estimated that more than 14 million people have seen some part of it. One panel is currently on display at the Newseum.

Many of the quilt squares have associated photos and biographies of those who are commemorated. The NAMES Project Foundation, the non-profit that is the custodian of the quilt, is putting digital copies of the quilt squares, photos, biographies, oral histories, and other material into a database so that this part of history can be permanently documented. The project will be on-going for the foreseeable future – here are the instructions for anyone who wants to create a square in honor of a loved one who died of AIDS.

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