Immersive Installation in the historic Kelly Pool, Fairmount Water Works

4,700 sq. ft. floating platform

Concept Development Completed January 2018

Public swimming pools—with their inherent social intimacy, their emphasis on leisure and recreation, and their unique neighborhood scale—loom large in the physical and psychological definition of American neighborhoods in the 1920s-1970s. As Dr. Jeff Wiltse explains in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, the pools used by millions of Americans were also spaces in which community life was contested, enacted, fostered and disputed, sometimes violently.

This exhibit, Hooligans, Beauty-Pageants and Clubs: The Story of Segregation at Public Pools in America, uses the National Historic Landmark Fairmount Water Works (FWW) complex as an active site for documenting this social history of pools through an artistic interpretive lens that merges history, art, science and innovative storytelling—and creating a venue for conversations about race, class, sexual politics and the use of public space.


From 1961 to 1972, the John B. Kelly Foundation operated the FWW pool, as “a site for training and instructional purposes” for both competitive swimming clubs and children. The pool was closed in 1972 after being flooded by Hurricane Agnes, and lay vacant until today. Newspaper clippings from the early 60s reveal immense public support for the pool, at a time when there was a lack of access to swimming facilities and lessons for children.

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Public Pools 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.


Though the Kelly Pool was met with excitement, the greater story access to swimming facilities traverses complicated lines around race, class and gender. A legacy of racial discrimination that limited access to recreational opportunities like swimming pools and to swimming lessons for POC continues to reverberate today, with dire implications: African American children in America are half as likely to know how to swim and three times more likely to drown than white children (per reports by ABC World News, the BBC, NPR, and CNN). The act of swimming (a love for it, how to do it and the cultural environment that surrounds it) is often shared between generations. Parents who don’t swim often have kids who don’t swim.


The exhibit will breathe life back into the dormant Kelly Pool, transforming it into a multi-dimensional “mediathèque” for the projection of a documentary film that explores key themes and developments in the complex social history of public swimming pools in America.

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For the first month of the exhibit, a three-part serial play will be performed live in two lanes of the pool—this play will also be presented as a video for the remainder of the exhibition. Along with a loop of gestural, mood-setting footage, this video will be projected onto scrims of varying transparencies, draped throughout the historic space of the pool. This multilayered visual approach creates an illusion of being immersed in water— alluding conceptually to the layered histories and experiences that are being recounted, and providing a platform for dialogue about the act of swimming together.


This history engages directly with challenging themes of racism, classism, and sexism. To facilitate self-aware and meaningful engagement with these topics, viewers will be invited to wear a small biofeedback sensor on the wrist, which wirelessly measures changes in heart rate and skin conductance (indicators of sympathetic nervous system activity and physiological arousal.) By translating this data into a live projected visualization, the audience will be able to see a live biofeedback response as it unfolds in response to what is happening on the scrims and/or the stage. There will also be an opportunity to engage with these topics even more through public engagement and outreach activities that will provide a platform for modeling democratic dialogue. Through curated role play and observation, visitor engagement activities will pop-up on the decks of the FWW as well as along the Schuylkill River Circuit path and in other public spaces around Philadelphia throughout the duration of the exhibition.

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Project Collaborators:

James Ijames, Playwright, Villanova University

Dr. Jeff Wiltse Professor of History, The University of Montana

Dr. Kevin Arceneaux, Professor of Political Science, Temple University

Dr. Bert N. Baker, Assistant professor, Amsterdam School of Communication Research

Dr. Pamela Barnett

Maria Shaplin