Johannes Adam Simon Oertel, "Pulling Down the Statue of King George III" (circa 1852-1853) from the exhibition Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy at New-York Historical Society (all images courtesy New-York Historical Society)

The movement to take down monuments of troublesome historical figures is commonly billed as a contemporary can of worms that invites more questions than answers: Who should be raised in the downed statue’s place? Where should the old one go? And is our approach to monumentalization fundamentally flawed, propping up a “great man” narrative of history that is more mythical than real?

New-York Historical Society’s Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy, which opened last Friday, January 28, plumbs all these questions but revises the assumption that they are in any way new. They are as old as the founding of this nation, and Senior Curator of American Art Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto, who organized the exhibition, wants visitors to reconsider debates over how to display public history in light of this fact.

The entrance to the Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy at New-York Historical Society

The glove-sized exhibition, housed in a small room right off the staircase leading up to the museum’s second floor, packs in several historical snapshots of how Americans related to their monuments. Despite its title, the exhibition only showcases one full-sized monument, reducing the size of statues (in many cases miniatures) down to a scale that provokes critical reflection rather than subliminal awe. 

The one full-scale monument is Joseph Wilton’s sculpture of William Pitt, First Earl of Chatham, who forcefully argued for the repeal of the Stamp Act and was beloved by colonists seeking freedom from the British. Standing next to the entrance to the exhibition, the marble statue is headless and armless, evoking the stores of classical statues that are displayed at museums in a similar state owing to beheadings during conquests or other damages through the millennia. It is believed that the mutilation of Wilton’s statue occurred at the hands of British soldiers who passed through New York during the Revolutionary War. Next to the statue of Pitt stands a digital display playing a slideshow of images of contentious contemporary monuments and protests, including Jen Reid’s “A Surge of Power,” which was temporarily installed by Marc Quinn where British enslaver Edward Colston once stood; a protest at Columbus Circle in New York City in 2017; and the now-removed Theodore Roosevelt statue the American Museum of Natural History doused in red paint.

The juxtaposition of a defiled icon of American freedom next to a digital image of the graffitied pedestal of a Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, comes to remind us that monuments have always been political battlefields.

An exploration of the King George III monument and its demise at the hands of American colonists in 1776.

Stepping inside the exhibition room, visitors are greeted with the first cluster of artifacts: fragments of a monument erected to King George III that was toppled by colonists; a reproduction of a painting illustrating the event; and a loose replica of the statue’s pedestal. The King George III monument, also sculpted by Wilton, marked the spot where New York colonists convened on July 9, 1776 to listen to a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. Stirred by the “repeated injuries and usurpations” so eloquently delineated by Thomas Jefferson and company, they mobilized to tear down the statue, break it into pieces, and remove its gold leaf. They even melted down the metal and refashioned it into 42,088 bullets for the Continental Army, giving the king a second life that weakened his own cause. The statue’s base remained at Bowling Green, where the monument had once stood, for decades, serving as a symbol of the struggle for liberation. (Its removal in 1818 prompted a minor outcry among those who worried that fellow Americans would forget about the trials and tribulations of the fight for independence.)

Installation view of Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel’s painting “Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City” (circa 1852-1853), created over three-quarters of a century after the event, depicts the charged moment, but pointedly includes people who likely would not have been present: an Indigenous family and a Black man. In the leadup to the Civil War, Oertel reviewed the same triumphal event with a more critical lens: Who was granted liberty and independence at the nation’s conception? The empty plinth serves as a space for viewers to participate in a public dialogue about what should go on barren pedestals nationwide.

An empty plinth invites visitors to contribute answers to what they think belongs on it.

Two more clusters explore the genocidal colonialism of Western expansion, which stripped Indigenous people of their land, and the Statue of Liberty’s evolution into an icon of immigration at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act had just been drafted. A miniature souvenir replica of Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage’s New York World’s Fair commission “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1939), which shows a dozen abstracted singers lined up next to one another in the shape of a harp, asks us to imagine what the sculpture would have looked and felt like at full scale. The original was tragically demolished by bulldozers at the conclusion of the fair, when no one offered to store it. Some monuments go out not with a bang but with a whimper, due to reasons as banal as mere neglect.

Augusta Savage’s monumental statue “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1939) has been destroyed, but it is memorialized at the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition

Towards the end of the exhibition are models of a handful of contemporary monuments. One is a bronze model of Alison Saar’s “Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial” (2008), which stands in Harlem on 122nd Street and was the first public memorial to a Black woman in New York City. Facing south, it shows Tubman’s struggle to free herself and others. Another is a model of Kara Walker’s “Katastwóf Karavan” (2018), the words for “Caravan of Catastrophe” in Haitian Creole, and which resides at Algiers Point in New Orleans, a dock where enslaved people were quarantined and abused before they were transported to “markets”. Two poems — “Savages” by LaVerne Whitebear and “Song for Karavan” by Diane Exavier — were also commissioned to respond to the artifacts and historical events on display in the exhibition.

Alison Saar, “Maquette for Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial” (2007)

Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy continues at New-York Historical Society (170 Central Park West, Manhattan) through July 3.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.