A Controversial Marker, a Troubled Legacy, and an Ongoing Challenge

“Double Sights” Debuts at PU’s Woodrow Wilson School

By Donald Gilpin | Photograph by Edgar Jimenez, Woodrow Wilson School

Walter Hood, designer of the 39-foot-tall Double Sights marker, stood near the Scudder Plaza fountain outside Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs looking up at his creation. It was mid-afternoon on October 5, less than an hour before the start of a series of events surrounding the dedication of the new installation which addresses the complex legacy of Woodrow Wilson.

Hood, recent recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”) and a Gish Prize, was open to talking about his controversial new composition: the two towering columns, white leaning against black to form a large triangle. But he was not offering an interpretation or an explanation of what it means.

About three years ago, Hood accepted the University’s commission to create a work of art that comes to terms with Woodrow Wilson — Princeton University president (1902-10), New Jersey governor (1911-13), United States president (1913-21) — and a legacy that has been highly acclaimed over the past century, but more recently has been sharply criticized for its racist and sexist views. The consequences of the contrasting elements of Wilson’s life are manifested today throughout the country, and particularly at Princeton, where two major campus institutions, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and Wilson College, bear his name.

“If the stature and character of Princeton today results partly from reforms that Wilson launched, they likewise benefit from efforts from subsequent generations to repudiate the exclusionary views that he espoused,” states a recent report of the University board of trustee’s Wilson Legacy Review Committee, based on a study initiated after protesting members of the Black Justice League (BJL) and their supporters occupied Nassau Hall for 33 hours in November 2015. As Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in his dedication speech, “Princeton has celebrated Woodrow Wilson in various ways that have not been transparent or forthcoming about his failings, and especially about his views about race.”

The trustees rejected BJL demands that Wilson’s name be removed from all University buildings and institutions, but, among other recommendations, did call for the creation of a “permanent marker” at the Woodrow Wilson School that “educates the campus community and others about the positive and negative dimensions of Wilson’s legacy.”

Hood chatted with passers-by who drifted into Scudder Plaza and were drawn to the dramatic new installation that Saturday afternoon.  A public discussion, titled “Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy: Wrestling with History,” featuring Hood and University Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter, was scheduled for 3:15 p.m. in the McCosh 50 lecture hall, with the dedication, including remarks by Eisgruber, to follow.  After that there was a reception in Robertson Hall of the Woodrow Wilson School, where an exhibition examining Wilson’s legacy, “In the Nation’s Service? Woodrow Wilson Revisited,” was on display.

Double Sights in the final stages of installation on Scudder Plaza. (Photograph by Edgar Jimenez, Woodrow Wilson School)

Holding the University Accountable

Students were planning demonstrations during the dedication, protesting that Wilson’s harmful legacy remains intact in an institution that they claim continues to be white supremacist, fails to acknowledge fully the truths of its racist foundations, and still has a long way to go in working toward equity and social justice. Minter and Hood, along with Trustees Vice Chair and 1969 graduate Brent Henry, were also in for some sharp questioning from students and alumni during their public discussion that afternoon.

Standing at the base of Double Sights, Hood reflected on his new creation and the upcoming events. “I would be almost dissatisfied if there was no protest,” he said. “This is a process where the students are calling on the University to have a consciousness about the past. We have to keep on holding institutions accountable for how we think about our history and what that history means to contemporary society and the future.”

If Princeton’s administration, the trustees, or anyone else hoped that this work of art would solve the problems of the deplorable actions and attitudes of the University’s past and Wilson’s harmful views and deeds, Hood would be the first to disabuse them. It may be a powerful, meaningful response to the BJL 2015 protest and their demands, but it’s only a start, and far from a solution.

Hood explained, “I’m hoping that people will come out and take a look at the piece and do research and see what the process has yielded. The thing that we’ve created is a public space that holds the University accountable to a certain degree, and it becomes a consciousness for the voice of the students.”

The two columns of Double Sights are etched with quotations representing both positive and negative aspects of the Wilson legacy. Quotes on the outside of both columns present Wilson’s views on a variety of subjects, and on the inside of the arch, on one column at the sculpture’s center, is a glass surface with images of Wilson’s contemporaries — W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, David Lloyd George, James Weldon Johnson, and others —  who were critical of his views and policies, particularly on the subjects of race and gender.  On the inside of the other column are quotes by these critics about some of Wilson’s most harmful attitudes and actions. Further details can be found at doublesights.princeton.edu.

“Powerful words force us not to choose sides but to try to understand,” Hood said in a talk on campus last spring. “We are trying to create a design in which you might visit the installation 20 times and find something different every time you visit.”

In his considerations of the content and imagery of the work over the past two years, Hood, who is the creative director of Hood Design Studio in Oakland, Calif., and professor of landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, convened focus groups of Princeton students, faculty, staff, and alumni, as well as members of the Campus Iconography Committee, a group established in 2016 to help diversify the range of art works on campus and to represent a more varied range of honorees.   

As we stood out on Scudder Plaza that early fall afternoon, Hood watched as the Double Sights marker continued to draw the attention of visitors and passers-by.  Many of the interested observers, though they had an idea of who Wilson was, seemed to have little knowledge of the recent controversies over his racist views. 

Between the pillars of the Double Sights marker, depicting some of Woodrow Wilson’s detractors and scenes from the Wilson era. (Photo by Derick Gonzalez)

An “Anti-Monument”

Two women in their 20s from upstate New York, one of whom had grown up in Princeton, were curious, immediately engaged. “We were happy to see it had a duality to it,” one said, “and that it didn’t just show Woodrow Wilson in a positive way.”

Hood was quick to intervene when her friend asked, “This is then the positive side and this is the criticism side?”

“No, it’s not binary – it’s binary from a visual point of view, not from a content point of view,” he explained. “The idea being the leaning part creates a sort of anti-monument. It’s not a monument. It’s a marker, a spatial piece. The white piece being held up by the black is social commentary about this country.” He indicated on the inner surface of the white column the images of scenes and people, speeches, demonstrations by women suffragists, protests against lynching, all from the Wilson era, all shifting on the lenticular surface as the viewer’s perspective shifts.

Hood gestured to the space between the two pillars underneath the arch. “If you go in the middle you’re actually supposed to be inside and giving him consciousness, but this privilege allows him not to have that consciousness,” he continued.  “It’s complex.”

A man in his 20s, a friend of the two visiting women, joined the conversation, noting that he had grown up in Atlanta, and that the South, with its Confederate monuments and its racist past, was wrestling with issues similar to those that Princeton University is confronting in coming to terms with its past.

Hood pointed out the reflecting interior surface of the black column. In looking at that surface, viewers read the stinging criticisms of Wilson’s detractors and, at the same time, see both their own images and, in the distance behind them, the shiny white columns of the Woodrow Wilson School’s Robertson Hall façade.  Viewers find themselves engaged in a learning process, in the middle of this experience, surrounded —literally and figuratively — by ideas, images, and words of Wilson and his detractors.

Pointing out again how the black column holds up the white column, Hood added, “It fits in with so much societal discussion right now about what you’re supposed to do with this hard history.  Woodrow Wilson is an important figure in history and to Princeton, but he’s a multi-faceted person.”

Scudder Plaza (opposite) reflected in the etched pillar of the marker. (Photo by Derick Gonzalez.)

“Disruptive by Design”

Later that afternoon, officially dedicating the marker, Eisgruber, surrounded by a gathering of about 200, including many protestors carrying signs decrying Wilson’s racism, said that the Double Sights marker is “disruptive by design.” Describing the work as “an engaging, vibrant presence on this plaza,” he noted, “It is a stimulus to reflection, and, as is the case today, an invitation to dialogue.”

He predicted viewers’ reactions, imagining responses that had already been evident in the experiences of the visitors earlier in the afternoon.  “Rare will be the student, faculty member, alumnus, or visitor who walks onto this plaza without being drawn to this towering and powerful work,” he said. “They might be discomfited or angered or enthralled or perplexed.”

He went on, “Double Sights exposes the profound contradictions in Wilson’s life and character and challenges us to confront the fault lines of our society and the tensions within the human soul.” Noting “the troubled histories it represents and the poignant tragedies it illuminates,” Eisgruber stated that the installation would “rivet attention” and “provoke arguments as it does today. It will prompt us to reflect upon our past and encourage us to do better in the future.”

In concluding his remarks at the dedication ceremony, Eisgruber said that Hood’s Double Sights “will advance this University’s fundamental mission to seek truth about even the most difficult and sensitive topics and to agitate and re-ask forever the profound questions of history and justice about which we must never rest content and for which, as with Walter Hood’s spectacular art work, no single perspective is ever adequate.”

Eisgruber’s words were encouraging, even inspiring, in the context of the difficult debate in contemporary society over the shameful elements of the University’s, and the nation’s, past. Hood’s towering marker could perhaps even serve as a model for individuals and institutions confronting past sins honestly and thoroughly, and continuing the process and the debate, the unfinishable task of working through those evils, perhaps without the prospect of ever achieving ultimate success or resolution.

Clearly Hood and the University have responded successfully to the trustees’ recommendation that they install a permanent marker on the Woodrow Wilson School plaza that would help to education the community about positive and negative dimensions of Wilson’s legacy. And they have certainly helped to advance the report’s exhortation that “Princeton University must be more transparent about its historical legacy especially as it relates to Wilson and especially as it relates to race. We need to acknowledge that Wilson held and acted on racist views and that pernicious racial attitudes and racist actions are part of our institutional history.”

“A Place of Protest”

Photo by Derick Gonzalez

But in the spirit of the title of Hood’s work and his comment that “this should be a place of protest,” many, including the October 5 protestors, continue to believe that the University has not gone far enough.

Protestors, who stood silently with their placards during the brief dedication ceremony, took over the podium after the departure of Eisgruber, Hood, and others, and talked about Wilson as a racist and white supremacist.

“He never intended for me to be here,” said Erica Dugue, a PU junior.  As University president, Wilson had blocked black applicants from being accepted and at one point wrote, “It is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” 

Kiki Gilbert, junior protest leader who also co-wrote an October 4 editorial, “A Concrete Step Backwards” in The Daily Princetonian, stated, “We are here today because there is nothing complex about a white supremacist.”  In her editorial, she warned against the dangers of attempting “to nuance the stance of a white supremacist,” stating, “If we do not denounce both the white supremacy and white supremacists with clarity and conviction, the University can never hope to uproot and dismantle the racism nestling in its crevices.”

Gilbert’s editorial went on to point out the vestiges of Wilson’s legacy that remain at Princeton.  “The University — which was the last Ivy League to officially begin admitting black American undergraduates, and was long known as ‘the Southern Ivy” — was a haven for Wilson’s particular strain of racism, and remains a haven for watered-down denunciations of white supremacy. To some black students, the implications of this feel far-reaching.” 

Gilbert called for a stronger focus, not on Wilson but on marginalized groups currently on campus, and accentuated the need for more “resources towards making this institution more hospitable for people of color who call this campus home.”

An October 3 letter to the Princetonian, titled “Stop and Think Before You Celebrate the New Woodrow Wilson Marker” and signed by more than 50 Woodrow Wilson School graduate students, made similar arguments, emphasizing the need for much greater equity and inclusiveness at Princeton, and asserting, “when you pass that marker, understand that it represents two things: moral failure of the University and how much work remains.” 

In her comments at the October 5 discussion, Minter agreed that Princeton University has difficult challenges ahead and that “this is work that is only just beginning. We have much more to do.”  She pointed out a number of initiatives, in addition to the Wilson marker, that the University is working on to promote a more truthful narrative about its history.

“We have much more to do broadly to be the kind of diverse, equitable, inclusive place that we want to be, and we have more work to do to acknowledge the truths that we have not fully told about our history and the pain that has caused,” she said.  “We have to keep talking about Woodrow Wilson forever. And if we ever get comfortable, then we have failed.”

Hood reflected on the challenge for Double Sights viewers, black and white, male and female, to “do the work,” to engage with its multiplicity in experiencing it, and the ongoing challenges for Princeton University and the nation in working through the sins of a troubled, tragic past.

“This is our struggle in this country,” he said. “It’s not just a struggle on Princeton’s campus. If, as an artist, I can participate in that struggle through the things that I make, then that is my participation.”