Maryland Solidarity Brigade Projection "Dismantle White Supremacy" on General Lee Statue in Richmond VA (photos courtesy Richmond DSA, posted by Backbone Campaign via Flickr)

All views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position or views of the Smithsonian Institution.

Nearly 130 years ago, Black people in South Carolina risked their lives to intervene in the politics of public memory. In the 1890s, Mamie Garvin Fields was a young Black girl in Charleston. Each day she passed the monument to pro-slavery advocate John C. Calhoun, Mamie knew what only the historical record can tell us today — that the Black community of Charleston would regularly assault the statue, chipping away at it, scratching it, even shooting it to leave their mark. The destruction was so effective that within four years White authorities remade the monument, lifting the Calhoun statue 115 feet into the air.

This understudied history of Black iconoclasm reminds us that the destruction of racist monuments has existed for some time and in a variety of sustained forms. As I explore elsewhere in an article co-authored with UC Riverside Professor Ayana Flewellen, serious engagement with this history can help us fundamentally rethink the problem of racist monuments. Viewing contested monuments through the lens of Black life and protest opens up new possibilities for museum interpretation and disrupts narrow debates on whether monuments to white supremacy should be destroyed or preserved. When viewed through this lens, defaced monuments especially open up new possibilities for museum interpretation and can reorient the field to consider the histories it has chosen to ignore, silence, or allow to remain buried within the monument itself. 

In light of recent protests, decisions to remove racist monuments raise difficult practical questions about what to do with them. To date there are no large-scale programs or comprehensive models for dealing with defaced or removed monuments. However, the museum and heritage sectors — two professions that are founded on the essential notion of preservation — have been challenged by calls, largely from outside of these fields, suggesting that museums take in damaged or fallen monuments. Public discourse on this issue often rests on complicated and unexplored assumptions, which at best suppose that museums should preserve and interpret these objects, and at worst, presume that they are places where unwanted relics of the past may be stored.

For museum professionals though, the monuments debate has never been clear cut. We have to think about how a monument would read very differently in a general history museum, an art museum, or a Black history museum. From a collections management perspective we have to consider whether limited resources should go towards preserving a massive object (sometimes weighing tons) when funds might otherwise be used to preserve BIPOC histories, for example. From the curatorial lens, decisions like whether or not to display a plinth could be the difference between stripping the monument’s power away or reinforcing white supremacy in an elite museum space. While these are just some of the myriad reasons museums have not rushed to take in fallen monuments, the contemporary moment of racial reckoning has created an opening.  

Today more museum professionals are considering what it could mean to exhibit defaced monuments. While intact monuments may defy interpretability in museums, defaced monuments provide a visible record of how people have responded to, interacted with, and contested racist historical narratives in public space. Monuments defaced through protest can be displayed in ways that contextualize the damage as part of a broader history of resistance to white supremacy by Black, Brown and Indigenous people in the United States. Contrary to assertions that defacement in this context is a move to “erase history,” these monuments show how communities today are engaged in a longstanding process of remaking history to be more truthful, inclusive, and accountable.

Preserving damaged monuments can connect the public to traditions of targeted destruction: stories that are not always remembered or that have yet to be researched — from antiquity, to Mamie Garvin Fields, to the present. Such preservation also confronts underlying racist assumptions. Viewing a destroyed monument through the lens of a Black iconoclastic tradition, for instance, moves us away from the prevailing notion that Black public destruction is uncoordinated, reactive, or a form of looting and self-harm. Instead, it becomes a piece of a longer series of historical interventions that dispute what our society chooses to see, research, commemorate, and steward in the first place.

Museums must question the very definition of conservation. Can museums create alternative care guidelines for defaced or dethroned monuments that do not call for them to be preserved as originally created? Perhaps that is precisely what the Black iconoclastic tradition encourages us to reconsider. In asking to value Black life and history, we must challenge museums to revisit the political implications of care, memory, community decision-making, and the productive role of destruction.

Tsione Wolde-Michael is Curator of African American Social Justice History at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. She is also a 2020 Alfred Landecker Democracy Fellow.