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Six Strategies for Dealing with Controversial Monuments and Memorials

Communities across the nation (and even the world) have generally used the following options in dealing with contentious public monuments and memorials.

Erected in New Orleans in 1884, this statue of Robert E. Lee was removed on May 19, 2017 to much public outcry (image courtesy Abdazizar via Wikimedia Commons)

FRANKLIN, Tenn. — Communities across the United States are grappling with the issue of public monuments and memorials. The most public of the conversations have revolved around Civil War monuments, many of them in the American South. This makes sense since the region is home to a majority of the public memorials to the Confederacy. But the movement for a reassessment of monuments and memorials is by no means geographically limited.

For example:

  • In September 2017, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed a Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers to review its public monuments to J. Marion Sims (who conducted experiments on enslaved women that earned him the moniker of “The Father of Modern Gynecology”), Christopher Columbus, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan. Ultimately, the commission advised moving the Sims statue, and leaving the rest in place.
  • In March 2018, as Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon reported, Pittsburgh decided to replace a statue of Stephen Foster that prominently featured an enslaved man playing a banjo. The city has asked for public input for what will replace it.
  • In late 2017 Mission Hills, Santa Barbara, and San Gabriel, California, statues of St. Junipero Serra, were all vandalized.

Confederate monuments and memorials, however, are still at the forefront of the public memorial discussion. Just this week, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported the removal of 110 of more than 1,700 monuments and memorials to the Confederate cause since the 2015 massacre of nine African Americans at the historic “Mother Emanuel” church in Charleston, South Carolina. In December 2017, the City of Memphis removed statues to Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis under cover of darkness, a move that caused the Tennessee legislature to withhold from the city $250,000 for its violation of state law regarding removal. Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro was denied the right to rename Forrest Hall.

In North Carolina, the fate of the “Silent Sam” monument at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, continues to be hotly debated.

A vandal beheaded this statue of St. Junipero Serra outside of Old Mission Santa Barbara. Only the empty plinth remains (image courtesy Prayitno via Wikimedia)

Not every community has chosen to remove statues, and many people, myself included, are somewhat reticent to advise removal as the sole option for statues and memorials. Communities across the nation (and even the world) have used at least six different options when dealing with public monuments and memorials. The following rundown of these options are inspired by my conversations with Todd Groce of the Georgia Historical Society and Sheffield Hale of the Atlanta History Center, among others:

Do Nothing. There are three main arguments for this. The first is the most facile: no one cares, so why do anything at all? The second is to preserve the built environment, which is a hallmark of historic preservation concerns. The third is an attempt to make a historical argument: “You can’t erase history,” some maintain. The fallacy in this argument is that monuments and memorials say very little about their putative subjects but speak volumes about the motives of those who erect them.

Removal. There are three options for removal: The first is to place statues in a museum where they can be interpreted like other art. This was a common initial response when the issue first emerged in late 2015. Some museums, such as the Matheson History Museum didn’t want them. And some museum professionals have recently argued against this idea. The University of Texas at Austin relocated their campus statues to its Briscoe Center for American History.

 The second is to place them in storage. This is the situation in New Orleans’s very public monument removal discussion. It is also true in Baltimore.

The third option is to destroy them. This hasn’t happened yet that I know of, but here’s a unique interpretive possibility Megan Kate Nelson posed, that Kevin Levin quoted here: “They should be destroyed, and their broken pieces left in situ.”

Relocation. This is how Orlando, Florida, handled its Confederate statue, moving it to the city-owned Greenwood Cemetery. New York City has done the same with its Dr. Sims memorial, relocating it to the Brooklyn cemetery where Sims is buried.

Add additional markers or kiosks for contextualization. This is something those of us in the history field immediately gravitated to since it gives public historians the opportunity to provide additional historical content and context. An example of this is from Colorado’s addition in 2002 of a plaque about the Sand Creek Massacre near its state Civil War monument. More recently, in 2016, the Atlanta History Center published its Guide for Placing Monuments in Context. A notable example of this is in action is on the campus of the University of Mississippi. The city of Denton, Texas is following this course as well.

Add to the monument in a way that changes its meaning. Outside of the “Fearless Girl” in New York, we’ve not seen this much in the US yet — and may never. My favorite example of this is from Sofia, Bulgaria, where street artists “adjusted” the city’s “Monument to the Soviet Army” in 2011. (The monument has since endured several other transformations as well).

Add additional monuments that honor other stories and people. This is what Project Say Something is looking to do in Florence, Alabama: to add a monument to the Civil Rights Movement on the courthouse grounds where a Confederate statue already stands. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, who convened a commission in 2017 to study the city’s memorials, has publicly considered adding to the commemorative landscape. Vice President Mike Pence has as well.

In 2011, an anonymous artist transformed Soviet soldiers at the base of a Soviet Army monument in Sofia, Bulgaria, into superheroes and other icons of American popular culture. The graffiti reads, “Moving with the times.” (image courtesy Ignat Ignev via Wikimedia Commons)

Rowman & Littlefield will publish David B. Allison’s Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders in August 2018. The book’s two-dozen chapters cover the breadth and scope of community discussions around monuments and memorials. (Full disclosure, I was managing editor of the book series when Allison wrote the book.) Public historian and educator Kevin Levin, whose Civil War Memory blog is a terrific source for the goings-on regarding this issue, has also submitted a proposal for a Civil War monuments reader.

Like many issues in American communities these days, the discussion over monuments and memorials is fraught with complexity and intransigence on all sides. For those looking for a universal solution, I am convinced there is none. The issue, as I see it, may only be appropriately addressed by each individual community. That means some will leave in situ monuments to problematic individuals and causes. Others will remove them altogether. Some will supplement existing monuments with additional statues or interpretation. Still others may alter the statues. Whether I’m happy or not about the outcome of the discussion (or lack thereof) I, for one, am pleased that history is now featured so prominently in public dialogue and that communities are engaging museums in this discussion.

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