Monuments and Statues: A Curator’s Perspective

By Kieran Robertson

At the beginning of June, three statues of Christopher Columbus stood in the city of Columbus, Ohio. Now only one remains.

Public dialogue about racism is a constant in America, but recent nationwide protests in reaction to the murder of George Floyd have pushed this issue to the forefront. Americans have reignited a long-standing argument about the removal of public statues representing historic figures who contributed to the oppression of communities of color. This argument often focuses on Confederate monuments, but can also include colonizing influences such as Columbus.

Talking about objects that interpret history for the public, like statues, is what we as museum professionals have been trained to do. Statues, while often considered records of history, like textbooks or documentaries, are perhaps more useful to think of as objects of history. Like a family’s quilt, a soldier’s diary, or a musician’s instrument that you might find in a museum, these statues were tools created for a purpose. When it comes to objects that haven’t made it to a museum yet, like statues, the objects are actually still actively in use. If we contextualize the reasons that many American statues were built, we can see that they were built to support White Supremacy–the belief that White people are superior to all other races. We must meet the difficult past depicted in the monuments around our nation, but we must also dismantle the tools that perpetuate that difficult past, so that we can build a better future.

By considering the history of monuments and statues, we can see that statues are not intentional recordings of history. As the Met Museum has noted, after the conquest of Alexander the Great “portrait statuary provided a means of communicating across great distances both the concept of government by a single ruler and the particular identities of Hellenistic dynasts.” These statues were specifically created to serve the rule of Alexander the Great and cement his power. After the Belgian Revolution in the early 1830s, leaders began to harness history to build nationalism, installing new monuments to historic figures that the new nation might rally around. Monuments to Alexander the Great or Belgian heroes were used as tools to change and control contemporary opinions, not to document history for future viewers. These objects were not built with the intent of preserving the past.

A statue of Christopher Columbus outside Columbus City Hall, 1950s. This statue will no longer stand at City Hall in 2020.

Curators will not take a family quilt while children are still snuggled underneath, a diary before its last page is filled, or an instrument while a musician is mid-performance. Objects, like statues, often live very long lives and have long stories. Statues were put in the public sphere with an intent, and until that intent is over they are not ready to be retired and interpreted.

This means that the destruction, alteration, or agreed removal of monuments and statues is part of that monument’s story. It is part of the story that historians are interested in hearing about. The way that a society interacts with the message of a monument can tell us a lot about that society. We now look at the toppling of the Berlin Wall or the destruction of statues depicting Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein as part of the history of those structures, perhaps one of the most important parts of their history. The removal of statues in the United States in 2020, and the conversation that has followed, will tell future historians about who we were in this moment.

If we do not contextualize the ways in which statues were initially meant to be used, we can perpetuate the negative intents of the builder into the present. There is no longer any risk that Alexander the Great will conquer new nations. But, in the United States many of our monuments were built with the intent of supporting White Supremacy and intimidating people of color. This oppressive intent can be perpetuated long after the person who built a monument has died. Our built environments are not naturally occurring. When we take for granted the buildings, statutes, or monuments we pass every day, we start to normalize the ideals of the individuals who built this environment.

In the early 1910s, Bennett Young and George Washington Littlefield worked together to build statues to Confederate leaders in Texas. Like many former Confederates around the United States, these two men wanted to spread the historically inaccurate Lost Cause ideology as a means of securing systems of White Supremacy that still affect Americans today. In the papers of Littlefield at the University of Texas, one will find a note from Bennett stating, “…Mr. Davis was never popular in the South and it was difficult to excite and evoke enthusiasm in regard to things which affect him.” Today, Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, is popular in the American South, because when men like Bennett and Littlefield made him a basic part of the built environment, he became a part of people’s lives. And when this past is a part of our day-to-day lives, it is harder to dismantle racist and oppressive systems in our present.

We take our built environment for granted. In the 1970s, these Ohio children noticed a statue of Peace and Prosperity as they walked through Columbus.

Littlefield also raised a monument to John H. Reagan, a member of Jefferson Davis’s presidential cabinet, who actively worked to disenfranchise new black voters after the Civil War. But when it came time to remove this monument a few years ago, Texans could only remember that Reagan had gone on serve the state in Congress after the Civil War. Passing by this monument every day had normalized Reagan to the point that no one could analyze his misdeeds and the systems he had created (his efforts at disenfranchisement were not dismantled until the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act).

Even when we are able to recognize the wrongs of men like Jefferson Davis or John H. Reagan, pointing out specific individuals that harmed communities of color, rather than the oppresive systems that the individuals built, can set back progress. Statues put a face to the evil of White Supremacy and allow white Americans to absolve ourselves of the work needed to dismantle the systems that men like Reagan put into action. As Ibram X. Kendi wrote,

“When you make it about ignorance, you’re not making it about power and policy and structures and systems, that the problem centrally is not America’s institutions, is not the American story, is not American capitalism, that the problem is ignorant individuals. So it allows people to deny how fundamental racism has historically been to America.”

Museum professionals believe it is important to tell stories with objects from our past, like statues, but if these objects are actively damaging our future we must consider other ways to tell the story. It is much more important to end the oppression of our fellow human beings in the present than it is to preserve an item that could tell a story about our shared past. When objects fail, we can continue to tell our stories through books, documentaries, oral histories, or stories around the dinner table.

Germany has modeled the possibilities of historic preservation despite statue removal, with the removal of Nazi statues from the public sphere. The German education system very carefully teaches about this difficult past. But the nation has also removed all opportunities for the physical memorialization of Nazi ideology. For instance, historians will never know where Hitler is buried. And that’s okay with us.

There are many important conversations occurring around Ohio, the United States, and the world about dismantling historic systems of oppression that affect communities of color. These conversations should be taking center stage. Removing a statue will not dismantle a long standing social system. However, by making the racism of the past less of an acceptable part of our present, we may be able to clear our minds and truly get to work to fix the problems that the people depicted in these statues left behind.

For advice from our staff on making decisions about the monuments in your community, click here.

Posted June 25, 2020

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