Consider a central monument on our campus, Daniel Chester French's Alma Mater (1904). If there were a debate about this sculpture, where on campus would you want to place it, and why? Write a short argument in favor of a new placement for Alma Mater. Issues to consider include, but are not limited to: visibility, symbolism, pedestrian traffic patterns, and the relationship of the sculpture to the space around it and to the viewer. Be creative, and be sure to present specific visual analysis of both the statue and how it would appear in its new space.

Alma Mater is a primary figure in the scheme of Columbia's primary pedestrian intersections. As such, even without considering its content, it affects the space it punctuates. Thanks to its perch midway up the Low Steps, it intercepts lines of sight from many angles. From College Walk, it first draws the eye away from Low Library, then relinquishes its hold to the mass behind it. Its bulk redirects foot traffic between upper and lower campus, and divides students sitting on the steps into two smaller camps. Its scale — human-like but larger — means that no matter the proceedings, it watches over them.

To a visitor, it might look as though Alma Mater has always been there. This is, of course, not the case. It was unveiled just over a century ago, designed by Daniel Chester French on commission from the widow of a Columbia alumnus. Made of bronze, resting atop a pedestal of marble and granite, protecting its appearance against the inevitable effects of the elements has been an ongoing struggle. The sculpture has already been restored on several occasions in its short life, most recently in time for its 100th anniversary. In the case of important historical relics, such as the Elgin Marbles, importunate environmental or political conditions often warrant moving them to a better controlled site. While Alma Mater's sculptor and customers might be excused for failing to foresee the potentially destructive effects of the 1968 student riots, they could not possibly have been ignorant of New York's climate. Fully aware of the maintenance cost, they wanted Alma Mater to be seen. What did they want it to say?

I've never much cared for Alma Mater. I don't often walk near it. While researching this assignment, I discovered that I'm uncomfortable even standing near it. Why don't the two of us get along? Now that I've looked more closely, let me count the ways. For one, it's utterly unsubtle. By virtue of its placement and scale, it's clearly intended to be significant. Despite that, and its being covered in easily decoded symbols, someone deemed it necessary to stamp “ALMA MATER” on the base in large letters. Symbols evoking Columbia include crowns (atop the staff and behind the seat), lion-like feet emerging from the seat's sides, and the university's motto. But there's plenty more to dislike. The scale, for instance; sitting next to Alma Mater feels, at best, rather like being shepherded by an elementary schoolmarm. Or her regal airs, sitting on a throne-like chair atop a tripartite pedestal plus a footrest, crowned with a wreath, cloaked in robes, arms outstretched toward her subjects. It is strange to find such symbols of power, prestige, and privilege lorded over the viewer at an American university which not only (at least in the present day) prides itself on democratization and integration but also long ago sought to differentiate itself from the old British-authority-inspired name of “King's College.” If the book in Alma Mater's lap is indeed the Bible, so much the worse.

Alma Mater conveys messages Columbia should not be conveying. And those messages which are worthy — for instance, the text on the lamps reading “Sapentia” and “Doctrina” — are already stated more eloquently by the campus itself, both by its nature and by the arrangement of buildings such that one is always walking among libraries, research facilities, and classrooms. Alma Mater should be moved out of public view, not for its safety but for the repute of the university and out of respect for its denizens. Out of respect for its creator, and the stories which may have attached to it over the years, it should not be destroyed. Instead, it should be buried, hidden behind pipes and machinery, in one of the Columbia tunnels.