“Pool: A Social History of Segregation” (POOL) is a 4,700 square-foot, multi-disciplinary museum exhibition exploring the history and contemporary implications of segregated swimming in America. Set in a vacant portion of the National Historic Landmark Fairmount Water Works, POOL will create an unexpected and safe platform for the investigation of the role of public pools in our communities with the goal of deepening understanding of the connection between water, social justice and public health.
The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage recently announced the POOL project as one of 39 project grants and fellowships for 2019 in support of Philadelphia’s cultural organizations and artists. Set in the historic Kelly Pool, a former practice venue for competitive swimmers and Philadelphia students from 1961 to 1972, and one of the last remaining historic pools in central Philadelphia, the public will be immersed in a curated collection of original site-specific art installations and experiences, including stories collected from the public at pools throughout Philadelphia, and rarely seen archival film footage and photographs.
Victoria began envisioning this project as part of a museum conference session she co-facilitated in 2015 in Pittsburgh, PA. She used this social history as a basis for a fictional museum exhibition case study that provided the content and activities for the session. After the conference she archived the session documentation and got on with other things. In 2016, in reaction to various media reports of racially motivated incidents of aggression and intimidation in public spaces following the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, the project popped back up in Victoria’s mind and heart. She transformed the case study into a project proposal for the PEW Center for Arts and Heritage. Bill Adair connected her with the wondrous playwright, James Ijames. She and James decided to join forces, and two years later, the project was awarded full funding and will open to the public at the Fairmount Water Works in September 2021.
POOL enables FWW to advance its social justice commitment to access to water for all. Access to safe water for drinking, swimming and agriculture will only become more limited in the coming years. Decades without change in the way the world manages, conserves, restores and distributes this finite resource will have a profound impact on the way in which we will be able to use water in the future. Every person has a stake in this conversation.
One of the most powerful opportunities that this project provides is to connect the exhibition to Philadelphia’s 70+ public pool facilities (surpassing NYC and Chicago!). Many of these institutions are themselves decaying, dilapidated and under-funded. In 2013, Philadelphia’s pools reported less than one million swims— 3.3 million less than the summer of 1937. However, when you talk to people who love and frequent Philadelphia’s pools, many say that they are the most diverse spaces they’ve experienced in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, local and national media reports reflect how pools continue to be contested social spaces— dramatic stages for recreation and the illumination of collective fears and racism. At the same time, people are hopeful of the positive impact of the young and charismatic Olympic swimming champion Simone Manuel, and her marvelous 100-meter freestyle victory in Rio de Janeiro.