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On June 7, a monument to slave-trader Edward Colston that had stood in Bristol, England for 125 years was toppled by protestors and pushed into the harbor. Four days later, the Bristol City Council dredged up the bronze statue and brought it to an “undisclosed, secure location,” with eventual plans to display it in a museum.
The toppling and subsequent retrieval of the Colston monument prompts questions about the value placed on objects versus actions. Why did the object need to be pulled out of the water? Why, after such a clear direct action, did some respond with a sense of loss? These questions prompted me to create the Toppled Monuments Archive — an artist-run digital archive of the documentation of toppled and removed colonialist, imperialist, sexist, racist and Confederate monuments.
There has been a sharp increase in the toppling and removing of problematic monuments lately, sparked by widespread Black Lives Matter protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and many others. These symbolic objects have been toppled, tossed into rivers, and lit on fire during protests, as part of the historic, anti-racist reckoning currently taking place worldwide. Conversely, municipal and private efforts to prevent the toppling of these statues have accompanied these cathartic symbolic moments. Many cities have physically blocked direct action from taking place by building fences and utilizing police forces to guard monuments. Cities have ordered swift removals of busts and statues, either to prevent protestors from toppling them, to maintain a sense of order, or to gesture hazy solidarity with broader anti-racist movements.
Let’s look into this trend of relocating monuments. Much like the Colston statue, the Christopher Columbus monument in Baltimore — which was toppled and rolled into the harbor during widespread July 4th protests — was dredged from the harbor two days later with the efforts of both cranes and divers. These private companies were hired by groups including the Associated Italian American Charities of Maryland. The monument was moved to private storage with the intention to repair it and display it elsewhere. Likewise, in Ventura, CA, the city-planned removal of the St. Junípero Serra statue resulted in its relocation to the San Buenavista Mission, one of the missions founded by the very same sadistic priest. In Dallas, a Robert E. Lee monument removed in 2017 was sold at auction for $1.4 million and moved to a private golf course in 2019.
Numerous other monuments have been moved to the gravesites of the person they depict. The monument to Confederate general John Castleman, for example, previously located at Cherokee Triangle in Louisville, Kentucky, has been placed by his grave.
This shuffling echoes the way people in power move money to avoid tax penalties and culpability. In the US, the ability to move things — capital and bodies — is intertwined with white supremacy, and by moving these public artworks around, this evil slipperiness is enacted with as much racist intent as what spawned the creation of these monuments in the first place. This begs a few questions: Will the sculptures moved to storage come out again to stand in more powerful and dangerous positions? Will they re-emerge depending on the results of the upcoming election? The sale of Confederate monuments at auction, and their placement in public and private collections and spaces corrodes the efforts and agency of communities working towards a long-overdue reckoning with the history of this nation.
The Toppled Monuments Archive seeks to reroute the impulse to preserve these objects altogether. We do not need to physically preserve these objects to preserve history. Toppling these monuments is history happening in real time and these actions are being widely documented.
In putting activism first, the Toppled Monuments Archive reorients considerations of how to preserve history. We gather images and video from activists and news outlets. The images are then protected with anti-facial recognition tools, with respect to the anonymity of the protestors in the wake of a virulent administration that seeks extreme jail sentences for those who participate in these actions, including the Executive Order issued on “Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence.” Blurring the faces of the protestors is at once a protective measure and a compelling aesthetic process of abstraction.
We posit toppling not as a destructive act, but rather the preservation and relocation of these monuments as damaging. For example, in reaction to this surge of removals, the members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy have begun to build new monuments, buying property and land to store and display existing statues.
“Most people who oppose these monuments in public spaces would prefer to see them relocated to a museum or state archive” noted Lecia Brooks, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in the New York Times. However, preserving these objects in any way actively undoes the work of the activists and abolitionists who have devoted themselves to the larger anti-racist movement. Institutions, museums and cities should reevaluate their priorities and redistribute resources and reparations rather than spending the money on recontextualizing these objects. In an extensive study conducted in 2018 for the Smithsonian and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute, it was found that between 2008 and 2018, an estimated $40 million of taxpayer money was spent on Confederate monuments, sites, and groups that support racist ideology. These monuments are not only taking up public space, they are costing the public money.
Efforts to preserve these monuments and prevent their toppling signal a desire to allow them to continue to exert their power as objects, to uphold the ideas they stand for, and, perhaps most significantly, to communicate that property is more important than people. Let’s leave them at the bottom of rivers and keep them out of our museums.
We need to let these objects die, along with the ideologies they represent.