e pluribus unum

You may have never seen a silver dollar like the one in the picture above. They are no longer in circulation, and exist in the domain of coin collectors and dealers. But that coin bears a Latin phrase that was the unofficial motto of the United States from 1795 to 1956: “e pluribus unum”, which translates as “out of many, one”. Adopted at the beginning of the republic, the motto has both symbolic and literal meaning. It contains thirteen letters, one for each of the original thirteen colonies/states, and it is found today on US currency, the official seals of all three branches of government, and US passports, among other places.

That motto is one of the implicit themes of a public art project that was launched in New York City earlier this month. The New York Talking Statues Project is the latest embodiment of an idea that originated in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2012. The idea seems so obvious, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it. But you didn’t, and neither did I. The credit for the idea must go to David Peter Fox, who while walking with his children in the King’s Garden in his native Copenhagen, thought it would be nice if the statues in the park could tell their stories to the passers by. It might have helped that Hans Christian Andersen, author of stories beloved by children around the world, was one of the statues in the park. How logical it would be to be able to hear that author’s voice!

Art, science and dedication

Enter technology (QR codes and mobile phones), art (authors and voice actors), and tireless work on the part of David and others. In the first installation in Copenhagen in 2013, David and his team produced recordings for eleven statues in that city. Visitors swiped the QR codes with their phones, received a call, and listened as the “statue” told them their story. Since then, the idea has been carried out in London, Manchester, Vilnius, Helsinki, San Diego, Chicago and Berlin. As the concept has spread around the world, the statues that speak have expanded to include not only people (real, fictional, mythical and anonymous), but also animals (real and fictional), and even inanimate objects.

In the New York City version, 35 statues in all five boroughs have been brought to life. As in all of the previous iterations, the narration adds a human dimension to the statue’s life and times, helping to establish a personal connection between the subject and the observer that is often missing in historical monuments. But there are also two aspects of the New York project that, in my view, set it apart from the ones that came before it. First, it is the first truly poly-lingual project. Some of the earlier cities offered narrations in the local language and in English (Berlin, Helsinki and Vilnius), but in New York, each statue’s narration is being offered in English and in his/her native language, if it is not English. So listeners can request English or, depending on the statue, one of about a dozen other European or Asian languages. Since David’s grandmother came to New York from Ukraine in the 1920s, he was particularly interested in emphasizing New York’s linguistic diversity, so it made sense to enhance the original idea in this way.

The motto comes to life

Personally, I think there is another interesting angle to the statues featured in the New York project: over half of the subjects are not American. The statues of the Americans highlight the complexity of our history (Washington, Lincoln, Tubman, Douglass and others). The statues of the non-Americans reflect achievements and ideas that left an imprint on American history and culture. Many of those statues were erected in order to preserve that legacy for their descendants in America. So we have statues of Columbus, Stuyvesant, Joan of Arc, Bolivar, Shakespeare, Confucius, Robert Burns, Gandhi, and the goddess Athena. And that is what, in my view, makes the New York manifestation of the Talking Statues idea so right for the city and for the country. It is the embodiment of the motto “e pluribus unum.”

If you live in New York or are planning a trip here, I hope you will have time to visit one or more of the statues. It is a great example of how voice acting can add a new, engaging dimension to objects that might otherwise go unnoticed. You can find details on the project here. And if you find yourself on the Central Park Mall and want to get a call from Beethoven (in German or English), you will be listening to me. Enjoy your journey!

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