Statues are not just statues, and monuments are not just stone plinths and bodies cast in bronze. They instruct. They lift up the stories of those who are seen; dominate the stories of those who are unseen; and too often propagate menacingly incomplete accounts of our country’s past. As the poet Adrienne Su writes of childhood picnics at Stone Mountain, the largest Confederate monument in the United States, “Nothing at Stone Mountain Park / echoed my ancestry, but it’s normal for immigrants / not to see themselves in landmarks.” Monuments might be seen only in the ephemeral moments of school field trips, but they remain marked in our collective memory with the pin and pencil points of a history-tracing compass.
As a poet, as a scholar and professor, and now as president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, I have long explored answers to this question: “What can we do to create a commemorative landscape that speaks to the complexity of our history, educates us to better understand our collective past, and reflects the rich multiplicity of the American story?”
The Mellon Foundation has chosen to answer that question with a new five-year, quarter-billion-dollar commitment to bring a broader range of voices, stories and memories into our ongoing cartography of our country’s history. We call this initiative the Monuments Project. Its grants will fund new commemorative spaces, new work that recontextualizes existing monuments and memorials, and — in some cases — the relocation of existing monuments or memorials. Because this is an initiative that will require perseverance, considerable resources, rigorous historical grounding and laser focus, the $250 million Monuments Project will constitute a significant portion of Mellon’s grantmaking budget for the next several years.
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