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Hear the stories of NYC’s statues from those they honor—sort of

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A new project called Talking Statues brings New York monuments to life

The Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park.
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Every day, New Yorkers walk by countless statues honoring all manner of people—artists, former mayors, mythical figures, even dogs. (And some of these are more controversial than others.) But in many cases, the actual stories behind these monuments are hidden—even if the person being honored is well-known, the reason for their placement in a particular spot may not be.

But one project is looking to change that: Talking Statues, produced in collaboration with the NYC Parks Department, brings the stories behind 35 statues around the city to life. The project, which launched in July, was created by filmmaker David Peter Fox, who did the same thing in London, Copenhagen, and Helsinki (among other cities) before moving on to New York.

For the project, acclaimed authors and actors teamed up to tell the stories of figures both well-known—Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Jackie Robinson—and under-the-radar (Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian politician who has a statue in Riverside Park, may be one folks aren’t as familiar with). Authors like George Saunders and Terry McMillan wrote stories for various figures, which are then brought to life by a coterie of actors that includes Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen (who portrays Hans Christen Andersen, whose Central Park statue is pictured above).

How it works: After downloading a QR scanner, you find a statue in the city that has a blue Talking Statues sign. Scan the code on the statue (or type in a URL, if you don’t have a scanner), and the statue will “call” you and tell their story.

Even though there are hundreds of statues in New York City, Fox told Hyperallergic that the process of narrowing down which ones to include was easy once he decided on a theme: diversity and immigration. His grandmother’s own journey from Russia to New York inspired him, and indeed, many of the figures represented have some history that ties to those two topics.

As Hyperallergic points out, the project is lacking in women’s voices—though that’s more the fault of the city, which has few statues of women to its credit. (Some of the women you can hear from include Harriet Tubman, Gertrude Stein, and the goddess Athena.)

Still, it’s a nifty little project, and a cool way to bring history to life while also feeling like you’re discovering something new. Head to Talking Statues for a map of the project’s sites, and get listening.