The base of Stonewall Jackson statue in Richmond, VA after its removal on July 1, 2020 (all images courtesy the Toppled Monuments Archive, 2020, unless otherwise stated; photo by Sanjay Suchak)

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 Archivean artist-run digital archive of the documentation of toppled and removed colonialist, imperialist, sexist, racist and Confederate monuments. 

The Jeb Stuart monument (Richmond, VA) being removed by crane on July 7, 2020 (photo by Sanjay Suchak)

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. 

Digitally manipulated and protected image of the toppled monument to Christopher Columbus on State Capitol grounds in Saint Paul, Minnesota, June 6, 2020

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. 

The base of the Francis Scott Key Monument after the statue was toppled by protestors on June 19, 2020

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. 

Jillian McManemin is a queer multidisciplinary artist and writer.

6 replies on “Let’s Preserve Acts of History, Not Racist Monuments”

  1. “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.” This is both unreasonable and unnecessary. Their public placement was their offense. Correcting it, by any means, was and still is justified. But let’s not get carried away. Destroying historical objects, in this case objects pertaining to the very real history of Klan violence and the absurd lost cause myth, is not just legally impossible but not at all desirable. If your ultimate goal is to bring the dixie die-hards into the light of an accurate and unflinching history, begin the dialogue that will bring that about. Victories are opportunities to build. There is no harm in white (supremacist) elephants occupying storerooms. It was never about statues. It was about public space and shared history.

  2. The position advocated is terribly short sighted. Preservation—but not necessarily public display—is important to future generations.

  3. Ditto re previous comments–totally agree. Practicing vandalism and allowing rampant (and often highly unsafe / injury producing) destruction is not a good m.o. If you don’t like it, destroy it? If you don’t like what another person says (however offensive) shut them up and make sure they cannot voice their views again? This is a good lesson for kids? Can contrasting symbols and differing heroes co-exist today? Can we not discuss them intelligently? Produce art that speaks to question a previous (myopic perhaps) mindset without destroying it? Honoring destruction (and not making things right, not repairing, not taking responsibility ) teaches destruction. Period. Allowing this to happen signals that destruction public or private property is “good” in the name of art / enlightenment — a frankly terrible lesson and it makes me wince to see young individuals take this stance with such righteous passion. Looking back (with a more informed eye), The French and Russian revolutions, for example, saw many precious items / national treasures and artist / craftsmen-made beautiful artifacts, art, and architecture similarly destroyed in the name of the (dubious in retrospect) “righteous freedoms” ( they got Napoleon the radical turned Emperor…and ..Soviet Communism…and TONS of crappy art–not a full out improvement for the average working class bloke and bloke-ette). Arguably Hitler did the same thing though the comparison may make today’s youth wince (though thankfully the Nazis had the prescient intelligence to at least save the so-called degenerate art knowing it was good stuff). His rhetoric was not so different from those today who would destroy what they find immoral–morality is a slippery slope. Shall we erase the entire oeuvre and legacy of Gertrude Stein because she collaborated with Vichy? Tear down her portraits painted by some pretty terrific artists? (No, no, no or…non! as it were. ) But now let’s make a point to share her compromising choices and not in too tiny print. Let’s celebrate her artwork and not shy away from how she saved her proverbial and ample ass at a time where others made more humanitarian choices.) We can think. We can do this. Instead of promoting irresponsible destruction, educating humans and learning about history — good, bad, and ugly with non-destructive practices should be the goal. Is this not common sense? It is also a sign of maturity — think before you act (destructively). Destruction is an old OLD practice– Ancient Egyptian pharaohs had the images and idols of previous pharaohs destroyed / erased and / or defaced by removing their names and histories and replacing with their own to rewrite history and their own legacies. I see nothing different here. Few leaders or recognized figures lucky enough to be immortalized in bronze are without fault or indeed without some unearthed hypocrisy (owning slaves while advocating the abolition of the practice). They rarely were honored with statues JUST for owning slaves (the dude who owned more got a bigger statue? not…). So what DID they do? WHY were they honored? Did anyone bother to see what they did before taking this stuff down? Surely they DID do something unrelated that was brave or noble at least in historic context of the time. Were they worse than Robert Moses? Does anyone bother to research WHO these people were besides being slave owners as if that one regrettable practice defined them for now and forever? (And frankly if they led troops in the South during the Civil War I can argue they were fighting for far more than preserving slavery which is a shameful reductionist premise — but that’s another can of worms I won’t open here.) History cannot be brought back once erased and destroyed — ART I would argue, is a big part of history. Don’t ERASE art. And when it comes to elitism or the fact that most art institutions have blood (or variations thereof) on their hands– I’m glad Versailles and the Hermitage exist even though they were built by crazy monarchs who weren’t so nice to everyone. Many of the younger writers and so-called intellectuals today (I’m sorry to say) were raised without an understanding of or appreciation of history, context, and the unfathomable amount of skill and artistry and full out talent needed to build many of these statues and much of this artwork– however controversial it may be in today’s “enlightened” perspective (which may look different a decade from now IF we last that long as a nation). Non-destructive approaches are not as cathartic or newsworthy and are lot more boring than that slow, mindful, careful and responsible relocating of an artwork. But the latter should be the way to go if we are to preserve not only history but our humanity.

    Can I also mention the democratic process?–as in let’s go through a proper “bring it up at a public meeting” and involve representatives with speakers on all sides heard in a public forum, etc? Is dispensing with what should be a respectful and democratic process considered progress? I’d argue that losing this process– is losing our humanity. It may come back to bite those so keen on full out destruction and erasure (if you eliminate the fillibuster when you don’t like those using it–then you can’t use it either!). But, sadly, those repercussions may come too late.

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