Sweet Auburn: The Magazine of the Friends of Mount Auburn Connecting the Present with the Past | Page 23

sweet auburn | 2019 volume i Preservation through Storytelling: The Role of the Artist in Interpreting Difficult History By Peter Schlaht Advancement Associate “W ill it all fade?” Louis Agassiz asks aloud, pondering his reputation. “There must be something I can do. They are considering stripping the name from other buildings.” Throughout his work-in- progress play “Namesakes,” Mount Auburn Cemetery 2018–2019 Artist-in-Residence Patrick Gabridge ponders the troubled legacy of one of the Cemetery’s most noted residents, Louis Agassiz (1807–1873, Lot 1640 Bellwort Path). Agassiz was a renowned biologist and geologist in his day and particularly was credited with the founding of glaciology, the study of glaciers and other natural ice formations. Yet his reputation was tarnished by his refusal to accept the scientific evidence for evolution as put forward by Charles Darwin and other contemporaries, and for his commitment to racist pseudo-scientific theories of human origins that were used for generations to support slavery and segregation. Recent decades have seen Agassiz’s name removed from landmarks and schools as they choose to celebrate individuals who enabled and supported societal progress, rather than those like Agassiz who held it back. As the Cemetery’s Artist-in-Residence, Patrick Gabridge is creating plays like “Namesakes” to explore the multi-faceted lives and stories of notables buried at Mount Auburn. Many of these are stories that heretofore have not been told or that reveal complex and sometimes difficult sides of well-known figures. For instance, Jacob Bigelow (1787–1879, Lot 116 Beech Avenue) is celebrated for both his role as a founder of the Cemetery, as a botanist, and as a practitioner of medicine. He was a man so moved by the horrors of the American Civil War that he personally commissioned the Cemetery’s famous Sphinx monument to commemorate those lost in that bloody conflict. Yet he was also one of the noted standouts who refused to allow women into Harvard Medical School, believing them to be too delicate and modest to handle the field’s rigors. As both a historian and a playwright, Gabridge presents the stories of Bigelow, Agassiz, and Mount Auburn’s other notables as the three-dimensional figures that they were—both well-meaning and misguided. Through his plays, we taste the complexity of history and how we can learn from the mistakes of the past. In Gabridge’s work, criticizing the failings of historical figures is an important tool in preserving their history. Toward the end of “Namesakes,” one of Agassiz’s contemporaries, the botanist Asa Gray (1810–1888, Lot 3904 Holly Path) is asked if Agassiz was a good man. “Who am I to say?” he replies. “He was a man. Homo sapiens. He made his share of mistakes. Maybe it’s not so bad if the world decides to take a stand against some of them, even all this time later.” As both a historian and a playwright, Mount Auburn Cemetery 2018–2019 Artist-in-Residence Patrick Gabridge presents the stories of Cemetery notables as three-dimensional figures. The graves of geologist Louis Agassiz and Cemetery founder Jacob Bigelow; both men figure prominently in Gabridge’s plays. 21