Monument Lab, the Philadelphia-based public art nonprofit, has just released its National Monument Audit, a comprehensive analysis of more than half a million historic records. Produced in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the report answers the question: who gets to be on a pedestal in the United States?
Among their key findings, the researchers concluded that “the monument landscape is overwhelmingly white and male.” A graphic produced for the audit depicts the top 50 individuals represented in US monuments. It’s a sea of white men with just a scattering of faces that don’t fit that description, among them Frederick Douglass; Tecumseh; and Martin Luther King Jr., whose statue became the first monument to an individual person of color on the National Mall in Washington, DC in 2011. There are only three women — Joan of Arc, Sacagawea, and Harriet Tubman — and no US-born Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, or self-identified LGBTQ+ individuals on the ranking.
It may not come as a surprise that Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have the most statues dedicated to them in this country — or that Christopher Columbus, in third place, precedes MLK, in the fourth. It’s barely shocking that General Robert E. Lee, who led the South in the Civil War, holds the number six spot — his colossal bronze in Richmond’s Monument Avenue was the largest Confederate monument in the South before it was taken down just last month.
But Monument Lab uncovered a lesser-known and troubling data point: half of the Top 50 list enslaved people. Additionally, violence is the most frequent subject of commemoration; in a data set of 50,000 conventional monuments from every US state and territory, a third mention war. Stories about civil rights, education, public health, and community activism are far less likely to be immortalized in stone and bronze.
“The toll of war on our country is channeled through our monuments,” the researchers write. “Despite their preponderance, our monuments generally minimize the social and environmental costs of warfare for our veterans, their families, and our communities.”
Our memorials deliberately obfuscate events that don’t conveniently fit into the master narrative of American history: when Monument Lab typed the search term “massacre,” only four results represented the murder of Native populations, while 53 memorialized white settlers or soldiers killed by Indigenous tribes. There were zero monuments that recorded massacres of other people of color, despite at least 34 documented massacres of Black Americans between 1865 and 1876 alone, the report says.
The numbers are grim but critical evidence for the audit’s conclusion: our present monument landscape “misrepresents our history.” Each key finding in the report is accompanied by a “call to action,” steps that can be taken to reimagine our public art landscape, such as incorporating community stories that encourage healing.
“If we seek a nation that lives up to its creed, learns from and labors to repair its past, and connects to its history in ways that are more truthful, complex, and vital, then our monuments must change,” said the audit’s co-directors, Paul M. Farber, Sue Mobley, and Laurie Allen, in a preface.
The Monument Audit will help inform the Mellon Foundation’s “Monuments Project,” a $250 million investment to fund more inclusive monuments and memorials and contextualize or relocate existing statues. Read the full report here.