Last week, in preparation for a visit to our “‘Cultural Conservation’” class by Dr. Kay Turner, Director of the Folk Arts Program at the Brooklyn Arts Council, lecturer at New York University, and author of Beautiful Necessity: The Art and Meaning of Women’s Altars (1999), half of our class visited the African Burial Ground National Monumentand the other half visited St. Paul’s Chapel at Trinity Church, both located in lower Manhattan, and both sites of shared, memorializing practices in our urban environment.

The heart-shaped sankofa motif found throughout the remains of the 18th century African Burial Ground site translates as, “Learn from the past to prepare for the future.” The remains, rediscovered in 1991, are now preserved in a national monument that displays the sankofa motif on the 2007 outdoor commemorative sculpture at the center of the site. This site serves as a unique example of the decision making process regarding a sacred site that was discovered during a construction project in New York City—in this case, a federal building. Outdoors, a memorial sculpture and reburied remains commemorate the 419 excavated graves belonging to African slaves living in New York from the late-17th to late-18th centuries, the majority belong to children. Adjacent to the site and inside the federal building, a small museum contains a permanent exhibition featuring a wealth of information relating to the history of the site, the slave trade, and slavery in New York City.

In class, we discussed the “cultural conservation” of this site, how the reconstitution of the physical burial ground has been attained, and if the site “succeeds” as a sacred space. A reburial ceremony is a good example of how the site’s sacred quality was acknowledged: mahogany coffins, one of which is displayed in the museum, were designed and carved by artisans in Ghana, lined with Kente cloth to hold the remains. They were then reburied on the site in three grassy mounds, which can be visited as if in a cemetery. An elaborate and heavily attended traditional burial ceremony took place to commemorate the dead at the time of reburial, and to officially acknowledged the site to the public.

The idea of representing intangible elements in cultural conservation, such as the performance of creating sacred spaces in secular contexts, is a key issue for Kay Turner in her book Beautiful Necessity, and our class thus related the case of the African Burial Ground to her writing on women’s domestic altars in this way.

Kay Turner’s work on constructed ritual spaces considers altars as “living instruments … [as] channeling devices of integration, reconciliation and creative transformation” 1. For Turner, altars are not clean sites of worship, but rather, places of active practice, “messy with the process of living.” Turner has recently turned her attention from inside the home to outside on the street, to ‘spontaneous shrines’ as cultural manifestations of grief. Like women’s home altars, spontaneous shrines are places where people ask, seek, and receive spiritual intervention to aid in recovery from loss.

Since September 11, 2001 St. Paul’s Chapel has taken on spiritual and social importance for the community of this city, and this nation. In the wake of the of 9/11, St. Paul’s served as a place of rest and refuge for recovery workers. The chapel has become a monument to the moment of crisis and to those who dealt physically with the aftermath and recovery.

It houses an ongoing spontaneous shrine and interpretive exhibition that allow New York tourists to leave a record of their presence and sentiments, but also to touch a place that was intensely affected and altered by the fall of Towers.

Public memorials exist to allow the transition from grief to mourning, from incomprehensibility to some version of understanding. Unlike a formal monument, the ephemerality of St. Paul’s chapel and the altar within records the immediacy of the moment of crisis and also acts as cultural scar, a reminder of pain, but also proof of ongoing healing. Turner has emphasized in her work the importance of spontaneous memorial sites like St. Paul’s Chapel to those who study and document cultural expression because these public memorials are sites where history, cultural memory, and tradition are constructed.

By Maeve Hogan and Beatrice Thornton, M.A. students in ‘Cultural Conservation’: Preserving Place and Practice.”

[1] Kay Turner, Beautiful Necessities, 27.