One of the most interesting public sculptures in Philadelphia right now is a 22-feet-tall, wooden box in the middle of a public park.
The box actually covers a marble statue of Christopher Columbus that has been in place for nearly 150 years. Originally erected in 1876, the monument shows Columbus standing next to a globe showing a map of the Americas, though this actual statue has not been visible to the public for over a year. The covering of the memorial is the result of an ongoing legal battle between the city, which has been trying to remove the statue, and preservationists who want to keep it in place. A bizarre piece of art unto itself, Philadelphia’s wooden box demonstrates how the injustices of the past are not so easily undone.
Columbianism, the myth that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, has documented roots in racism and imperialism. However, Italian-American groups and other conservationists often seek to keep these statues in place, citing them as tributes to Italian heritage. Following the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, the city of Philadelphia voted to remove this monument, but a group of local preservationists challenged the removal in court. The issue has been tied up in legal proceedings since then.
The dispute over this statue’s removal has now spanned multiple courtrooms, protests, and rulings. A local judge ordered the statue cannot be removed. A state judge ordered that box cannot be removed either. As the case waits to be heard by the Pennsylvania state supreme court, the box as well as a set of metal barricades — originally put up as a temporary solution — have become everyday fixtures of the park landscape.
More complex and noteworthy than it initially appears, the messy spectacle of this boxed Columbus statue reveals much about efforts to reform public art in the United States. News coverage often focuses on the few Columbus statues that have been toppled, giving an exaggerated impression of social change. But over a hundred Columbus statues, the majority, remain standing throughout the country. This boxed Columbus is therefore a far more accurate representation of the state of critical self-reflection within public art.
Hiding in plain sight, the box obscures a vast legacy of inequality without undoing it. It removes the most visible source of conflict without addressing the root causes. (The court order for the box to remain in place even cited its necessity for public safety reasons.) The box covers up the past without directly addressing it.
Mired in a vast legacy system of bureaucracy and politics, the statue can neither go nor remain. Its covering seals it off from public view, but also functions to safeguard it from protestors. In fact, preservationists originally tried to argue for the box to be constructed of acrylic glass so that the box would act as a protective barrier while the statue remained visible. The box is a way for the statue to stay standing without inciting further controversy. It is therefore also a far more accurate representation of the difficulties of dismantling harmful legacies. The boxed Columbus symbolizes the superficial solutions implemented in the name of racial justice, the acts that conceal and diffuse rather than correct.
Shrouded spectacles like this are not unique to Philadelphia. Elsewhere, statues have been covered in large canvas cloths (see the Columbus statue in Shenley Park in Pittsburgh) or even encased in a giant, corrugated black tubes (the Columbus statue at the Italian Center in Poughkeepsie). Public monuments unto themselves, these absurd, poorly hidden memorials jut out awkwardly from the landscape, markers of this fraught era in United States history. Once these statues were erected as symbols of nationalism. Now they are reminders that the flawed foundations of the past will not be simple to repair.
To better understand the country’s response to the anti-racism protests, don’t look at the places where statues have come down. Look to the places where they remain in place, and especially at the places where attempts to remove them have failed. As public art reckons with its troubled histories, it is these shrouded statues that we should be paying attention to. The disputes over their futures continue far beyond the initial protests. They show how the systems of the past persist and preserve themselves. They are reminders that troubled systems most often remain in place, hidden in plain view.