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Public Garden’s Robert Gould Shaw memorial slated for restoration

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Public Garden’s Robert Gould Shaw memorial slated for restoration
The Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment PHOTO: COURTESY FRIENDS OF THE PUBLIC GARDEN

In 1981, the first capital campaign the Friends of the Public Garden facilitated was to restore the Shaw 54th Regiment Memorial and to set up an endowment for its care. Now, just months away from the organization’s 50th anniversary, the Friends are revisiting that early project.

After decades of tough Boston weather, the memorial has experienced deterioration that needs significant construction attention. The Friends of the Public Garden group has partnered with the City of Boston, the National Park Service and the Museum of African American History to get the job done. According to Michael Creasey, National Parks of Boston general superintendent, drainage and water corrosion issues will be addressed in the restoration. The team will also earthquake-proof the public art piece.

The Shaw memorial. PHOTO: COURTESY FRIENDS OF THE PUBLIC GARDEN

The Shaw memorial. PHOTO: COURTESY FRIENDS OF THE PUBLIC GARDEN

“It’s considered one of the most important works of public art to come out of the Civil War,” says Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden. “We need to be challenged by this monument in terms of what it means to us today.”

The Shaw Memorial commemorates the first African Americans who fought in the Civil War. It was also one of the first pieces of art that depicted people of color as individuals rather than caricatures. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens used individual black models to cast each of the soldiers. Additionally, the relief takes on a radically new commemorative form by ditching the solo-man-on-a-horse motif and depicting the soldiers marching as a team.

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Construction has not officially begun, but it is estimated that the restoration project will take six to 12 months. During that time, a number of initiatives will be in place to continue education about the monument. The wrapping on the construction fencing will be a sort of open-air museum featuring information about the monument. Docents and rangers will also be on site continually to answer questions. History buffs can use a forthcoming app to view a hologram of the monument and learn about its history from anywhere in the world, and the National Park Service will be operating a “Shaw Mobile,” an electric vehicle featuring interpretive exhibits about the sculpture.

An in-depth calendar of programming will accompany the construction efforts as well. “It’s broad-reaching in terms of the people we’d like to bring to the fore on these issues around race and how we look at the Shaw and public monuments as places for dialogue,” says Creasey. The Friends will be screening the film “Glory,” first on the Boston Common and then in the Bright Family Screening Room at Emerson College, on Sept. 9 and 11, respectively. During the screening events the Friends will introduce the Shaw app and former state Rep. Byron Rushing will introduce the film.

Vizza says the community can be involved every step of the way, and not just by attending programming on the Common itself. She says, “One of the things we want to challenge people with is to think about, what are you doing in your work, in your organization, in your life, that speaks
to this story?”

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