What is a crown? You would think that defining your everyday noun is an easy task. Turns out it’s not. Take for instance a crown. This object serves as the primary symbol of Shani Peters’ installation. When I try to describe it, I struggle to come up with a coherent definition that doesn’t sound like verbal gobbledy-goop. A reason for my struggle might be that most words are more complex than they initially seem, carrying multiple connotations. Historically, crowns symbolized monarchic power. The wearer of a crown, a king or queen, was empowered by donning the ornate headpiece. For many in the population who were disenfranchised, crowns stood for oppressive government control. Instead of power being invested in a ruler by the will of the people, the crown symbolized an unjust division of power. The crown, in the royal sense, does not function in current U.S. culture as it did historically in monarchies or totalitarian societies.
Nevertheless, there are crowns in our society. Biggie and Miss America are two figures that draw heavily on the iconography of the crown. While these individuals do not wield political power, they are “royalty” in the sense that they possess the power of cultural capital, which distinguishes them from the rest of society. The crown is a mutable symbol and continues to be significant. So what is the significance of a crown today? A consideration of the verb form, to crown, can help answer this question. To crown is generally positive, used as a means to recognize achievement. For example, poets were crowned with laurel wreaths to indicate poetic merit. In Shani’s installation, the crown functions in this celebratory way. Visitors crown themselves, commemorating individual successes in a powerful act of self-determination.
As it turns out, I can’t give a succinct definition for the crown. The Oxford English Dictionary definition, comprised of many entries for the noun form alone, can’t either. But a visit to the GalleryDAAS allows visitors to construct a meaning of the crown for themselves.
— Emily Paull. English and Museum Studies.