Removing Monuments: How Far Should We Go?

Monument 1

I know that American historians have been wrestling with this question now for several years and it is not my intention here to offer a solution to the problem because I do not have one.  I am still thinking this all through and I hope some of our readers might be able to help.

In the wake of mayor Mitch Landrieu‘s decision to remove Confederate and racist monuments from New Orleans, a lot of conservatives have been asking about where we draw the line between acceptable monuments and unacceptable monuments.  I think this is a fair question.  And it is one that American historians must address.

David Blight hit the op-ed pages in order to pat Landrieu on the back, but a quick Google search (“Landrieu and historians” and “New Orleans monuments and historians”) reveals that very few historians have entered this conversation with complex and nuanced ideas for helping communities think about how to deal with their own controversial monuments.  Kevin Levin’s #nolasyllabus is a good start on this front, but there is very little in the “Op-Eds, Editorials” section of this excellent resource that address these theoretical and practical issues.  (Some of the readings on “The Memory of Slavery” might be more helpful).

I am sure there is scholarly material on these subjects.  So I ask public historians and historians of race and memory:

Where do we draw the line between removing overtly racist monuments and erasing the past?

I am thinking here about Blight’s comment in his interview with the Dallas Morning News:

DMM: Let’s step back from the Confederacy specifically, and consider this subject from a more generic perspective. Whether it’s a statue to Saddam Hussein or whoever else, is there a case against erasing these things because they are part of history, and for looking at them for what they represent about the people who erected them in the first place?

BLIGHT: Yes, of course there is. You can’t erase everything from the past. If you set out to erase every Confederate monument that would take a few lifetimes. But having said that, these things are all about politics and the present.

You mentioned Saddam Hussein: You had a regime that took over a country and ran a brutal dictatorship and fell when he was deposed. It isn’t surprising that monuments were pulled down. The problem with America is that this was a Civil War that involved the whole country, and the South couldn’t go anywhere. The losers were not going to go away. About 6,000 of them went into exile in Brazil and England and Canada and other places, but even some of them came back.

The loser in this war was always going to be here. And the problem was that the “lost cause” tradition that these monuments tend to represent, because that’s when they were put up — the late 19th, early 20th century — gained a deep, deep foothold, and not just in the South.

But there is an argument to be very careful when you erase history. It’s a dangerous thing to do, because next year someone will want to erase history you think should be preserved. We went through all of this at Yale University last year with the changing of the name of Calhoun College.

I agree with Blight when he says that we need to be very careful when we “erase history.” I also understand that monuments are more about the present (or about the time that they were erected) than they are about the past.  I am just looking for some scholarly wisdom to help me be more “careful” as I think about these things.  What are best practices?  Are there best practices?

I will get the conversation started by calling your attention to my Storified tweets on a 2016 American Historical Association plenary session titled “The Confederacy, Its Symbols, and the Politics of Public Culture.”  A lot of the issues I have raised in this post were addressed in this session.

3 thoughts on “Removing Monuments: How Far Should We Go?

  1. For museums, there are no best practices for this specific moment. Action tends to arise from the institutional culture and stated mission. Two years ago, museums where I used to live resolutely avoided engaging in any meaningful conversation. My present museum does well in promoting “informed dialog” via various symposia and participation in other academic panels. Also thinking of the Atlanta History Center’s template for contextualizing monuments. I think many people, however, are skeptical about the utility of simple contextualization because there are no audience studies to suggest that label copy on a nearby panel accomplishes anything, and because that method doesn’t particularly capture or satisfy the range of experiences or emotions that swirl around these monuments.

    We’re certainly in a place to expand what “contextualization” is. It has to be more than deep dives into the archival sources. It might could include the creation of new narratives by prioritizing counternarratives on these monuments, perhaps help facilitate the interpretation of monuments by “outsiders” and grassroots organizations, incorporate artistic imagination and spiritual reflection into discussions as a set of methodological tools…that sort of thing.

    This week I’ve been keen to think about museum positioning—I’ve proposed some language that doesn’t address the “removal/keep’em” dichotomy, but promotes good historical thinking (I hope) that will suggest ways forward. In short, a position statement—so to speak—that acknowledges the explicit intent of monument raisers, the implicit effect of the monuments on viewers, and more importantly, promotes critical thinking about how the stories these people told themselves both endorsed turn-of-the-20th-Century disfranchisement and segregation, and obscured our lens on the actual 1860s. To me personally, I’m glad to see the monuments go because we can look at our real historical target without them getting in the way. They’re not documents from the 1860s. If evidence based understanding and empathetic reflection moves one to take a position to remove these things—I don’t see that as having gone too far.

    Also, why not try to have fun with this and incorporate imagination when thinking about the future? The “Truthful History Heals” exhibit in Richmond contained photo illustrations of what could happen to Lee’s Monument in RVA, some serious but just as many charming and whimsical. History museums, and I suspect, academics, don’t do that. (I’d be happy to be proven wrong.)

    That’s putting the cart before the horse—having local discussion and making local decisions as a way of figuring out “how far we should go.” Decide later. In a way, I guess, that does conform to the current best practices (some might say fad) of community collaboration, sharing authority, or positioning a museum to prioritize the needs of its audience or community, chiefly because it might incorporate and prioritize a community/audience voice—something the AHA plenary didn’t do.

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  2. Don’t forget that, depending on the locale, similar issues of monuments related to white-American Indian and white-Latino and white-Asian peoples might complicate what and who is commemorated and memorialized. (My specialties are American West and American Indian.)

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