For forty years, American history enthusiasts have recreated the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown at the location of the original 1777 battle, which the Americans lost to the British 240 years ago.
This year, a slightly different battle is a-brewing.
Karyn Olivier is one of 10 artists who created pieces installed around Philly as part of Monument Lab, a two-month project investigating the meanings and possibilities of public art. Olivier covered an entire historic monument in reflective plexiglass, turning it into a giant mirror.
The problem? Her project covered up the monument to the Battle of Germantown – which subsequently won’t be visible to anyone on Oct. 7, the day when a crowd of thousands is expected to descend on Germantown to view some 400 reenactors bring the battle to life and celebrate the history the monument pays tribute to.
“You covered the monument that is about Germantown!” said Pamela Bracey, a lifelong Germantown resident, while walking through Vernon Park, where the monument sits. “People come from all around the world to see the reenactment. People want to read about Germantown. We are the only park that had its monument covered. Germantown often gets written out, unless it’s something bad.”
Olivier, also a Germantown resident, acknowledged that she had heard the rumblings about her work, entitled “The Battle is Joined,” during a recent panel discussion at UArts. But she said she hoped more engagement with the monument could spark positive discoveries.
“I was hoping that the concealment … would allow it to feel really expansive,” Olivier said. “I was hoping all of a sudden, this monument would feel more accessible, less intimidating, or like its colossal nature and the material weightiness would dissipate.”
Dr. David Young, executive director of the historic Cliveden house in Germantown where the reenactment will be hosted, said Olivier’s piece is “outstanding.”
“There’s always battles in Germantown, whether they cover up the monument or not, people are passionate about history, that’s what this is evidence of,” Young said. “It’s not like they’re taking away the monument. No one goes to the monument to figure out what happened at the battle.”
The original Battle of Germantown, on Oct. 4, 1777, took place on a hot, foggy day, and U.S. troops lost to the British, who were occupying Philadelphia at that time. U.S. troops were handicapped by their drunken commander and the vision-obscuring fog. However, soldiers for George Washington’s Continental Army, who afterward went on to winter at Valley Forge, are still celebrated for stopping further British advances, despite the battle ending in defeat.
“Germantown is both a parable and an incubator for how we remember history. … The monument at Vernon Park is an opportunity for continuing this discussion,” Young said. “If it inspires more people to come see some of the historic sites or consider the value of what we’re commemorating, more power to it.”
The Germantown Revolutionary Festival will be held Oct. 7 at Cliveden at 6401 Germantown Avenue, with reenactments of the Battle of Germantown at 12 pm and 3 pm. Visit cliveden.org for more information.