Helping Hands: A Memorial to Jane Addams

The “Helping Hands” memorial to Jane Addams is situated within the Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens near the Prairie Historic District. Louise Bourgeois created the sculpture in 1993 to commemorate the life and works of Jane Addams, founder of Hull House and renowned advocate for women’s rights.[1] It is one of the first monuments in Chicago to memorialize a woman.

“Helping Hands,” by Louise Bergeron.[2]

“Helping Hands” is a series of sculptures made from black granite. Each one of the six is in the shape of a hand or hands and rests on a stone pedestal. The monument was originally situated in the Addams (Jane) Memorial Park near Navy Pier, but after being vandalized several times, it was taken down in 2006. After Bourgeois resculpted parts that had been damaged, the sculpture was moved to its present location in 2011, at the behest of the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District.[3]

Chicago was well overdue for a monument memorializing a woman’s contributions by the time “Helping Hands” came to fruition. It makes sense, too, for the subject to be Jane Addams, whose work with the Hull House advocating for women, laborers, and so many others, places her at the center of Chicago’s rich history of advocacy. Indeed, the six carved hands on their pedestals represent the many people Addams helped throughout her life, without thought to race, gender, or occupation, recalling what Addams herself said in her autobiographical notes: “Perhaps nothing is so fraught with significance as the human hand.”[4]

Part of “Helping Hands,” two sets of hands intertwined.[5]

While perhaps not as common as memorializing generals or statesmen, memorializing advocates who cared for and made the world a better place is worthwhile. The symbolism of “Helping Hands” is lovely and evocative, and sitting in the Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens is a suitable context (though the Hull House Museum, located a short distance away, also seems

like it would have been a good choice), even if it was not the originally intended location. It is interesting to note that one of the few monuments to a woman in the city of Chicago is symbolic in its form rather than literal; with so few memorials to women and their work, perhaps “Helping Hands” should be more literal and straightforward. Disassociating Addam’s work from a corporeal form might serve to place the focus on her acts, but when women have so few monuments to them for their actions, it is somewhat unsatisfying. Given her own words, though, Addams probably would have liked “Helping Hands.”

Hands coming together. [6]

Following the removal of “Helping Hands” from its original location at Addams Memorial Park, the Art Institute and the Chicago Park District worked together to find a new location to place the sculpture. The Art Institute commissioned the piece in the first place (and still retains the maquettes for “Helping Hands” in its collection), so the Institute clearly retained the role of a stakeholder.[7] The Chicago Park District is another clear stakeholder, wishing to both beautify the parks it oversees and have monuments that will please visitors to the parks and not cause too much controversy.[8] Given the events of the last couple of years, with monuments coming down due to public outcry, the public itself is a stakeholder in “Helping Hands.”

Remembering the legacies of Jane Addams and Louis Bourgeois. [9]

“Helping Hands” does not court controversy. There is no evidence that the vandalism it experienced while at the Addams Memorial Park was due to objection to its form or what it stood for, but rather that the vandalism occurred because the monument was low-lying in a place that saw a lot of traffic.[10] While the symbolic nature of the memorial may give pause to those concerned about how few monuments there are to women within Chicago, the sculpture itself is not particularly controversial. With all its pieces carved out of black granite, it is difficult to differentiate the differences between the hands, placing the focus solely on the idea of reaching out to help others. While that focus may problematize the “Helping Hands” for a select few, the monument is unlikely to rouse ire the same way a more contested monument would.

The sculptor, Louise Bourgeois, is well-known for making symbolic pieces that depict abstract ideas. Her input about what “Helping Hands” meant to her—Addam’s compassion and willingness to reach out to those who needed help—probably was mostly responsible for driving the narrative surrounding the monument for quite some time.[11] Following her death, it is harder to say who controls the narrative about “Helping Hands.” As the Art Institute commissioned the piece, they undoubtedly do now and did even when Bourgeois was creating the sculpture. The Chicago Park District, too, has a voice in contextualizing the piece, having played a central role in relocating “Helping Hands.” The two institutions that provide commentary, both in the form of a plaque describing the memorial and a digital resource (originally designed to be scanned at the monument, but also available for the general public on Statue Stories Chicago), continue to drive the narrative about this memorial to Jane Addams, and perhaps thus some of the narrative surrounding Jane Addams, too.[12]

Describing and memorializing Jane Addams. [13]

Despite the way institutions have driven the narrative surrounding the sculpture, there is a power to the monument. Not only is it to be hoped that “Helping Hands,” still too new to have made a lasting mark on the city, will do so over the coming years, but that the memorial will spark more memorials to worthwhile citizens of Chicago who are not white or male. Indeed, perhaps the monument, with its decontextualized hands and emphasis on collaboration and reaching out to help one’s community, will inspire more collaboration and more unity. Perhaps it might even provoke questions about who “Helping Hands” truly memorializes and who deserves to be memorialized.

Amber Mear, Loyola University Chicago


[1] Chicago Park District. “Helping Hands.” Last modified July 21, 2015. https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/helping-hands.

[2] “Helping Hands.”

[3] Glessner House Museum. “Helping Hands…That Talk!” Last modified August 10, 2015. https://www.glessnerhouse.org/story-of-a-house/2015/08/helping-hands-that-talk.html.

[4] Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull House. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1912.

[5]Statue Stories Chicago. “Helping Hands Jane Addams Memorial.” Accessed November 20, 2020. http://www.statuestorieschicago.com/statue-helping-hands.php.

[6] “Helping Hands…That Talk!”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chicago Park District. “Chicago Women’s Park & Gardens.” Accessed November 20, 2020. https://www.chicagoparkdistrict.com/parks-facilities/chicago-womens-park-and-gardens.

[9] “Helping Hands…That Talk!”

[10] Ibid.

[11] Waller, Mary. “Jane Addams’ “Helping Hands.”” Last modified February 17, 2019. https://janeaddams.ramapo.edu/2019/02/jane-addams-helping-hands/.

[12] “Helping Hands Jane Addams Memorial.”

[13] “Helping Hands…That Talk!”