Let’s Talk About It: Controversial Monuments

By Dahlia Fisher – July 10, 2020

We’ve launched a new blog series we’re calling “Let’s Talk About It,” where we discuss a current topic that we feel has a connection to us, as a museum of diversity and inclusion.

Today, we’re talking about an important debate in our country regarding the role of monuments in public spaces. For the past several years, we’ve been following news stories that suggest controversial statues of historic significance don’t belong in public, but rather in museums. Here, we believe that studying objects from the past provides insight into the present so that we can build a better future. If we simply warehouse statues, they won’t necessarily tell stories that educate and inspire. So, where do these statues belong?

Elizabeth Merritt is founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums; in an article entitled Are Museums the Rightful Home for Confederate Monuments? she explains, “Yes, museums do collect things—savory and unsavory—and, yes, they often put things away and preserve them for a very long time. But 21st century museums are striving hard to expand their reach, shift their focus and repair their popular perception as public warehouses primarily in the cold storage business for art and artifacts. More and more, we aim to surface issues, not hide them—to be places where communities come together to discuss and wrestle with contemporary questions.”

As a storytelling museum, we couldn’t agree with Merritt’s perspective more. She goes on to say, “In displaying statues, museums will need to be prepared to contextualize them visually and dramatically, to represent the layers of their history—from the story of their creation to the story of them being taken down and collected.”

Even within the setting of a museum, if layers of context aren’t provided a monument’s purpose can still be questionable. For example, since 1939 the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York has been home to a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback, flanked by a Native American Indian man and an African man. A debate about the imperialist nature of this particular statue waged on for years.

“For many, the equestrian statue… has come to symbolize a painful legacy of colonial expansion and racial discrimination,” writes Robin Pogrebin in a New York Times article entitled Roosevelt Statue to Be Removed From Museum of Natural History. The killing of George Floyd prompted institutions to make decisions about the removal of monuments symbolic of systemic racism. The Natural History Museum announced that they would remove Roosevelt’s statue with the city’s approval.

The issue of Roosevelt’s statue isn’t clear cut. While he was said to be overtly racist, he was also a pioneering conservationist and institutions want him remembered this way. Historian Manisha Sinha, interviewed on NPR on Should Statues of Historic Figures with Complicated Pasts be Taken Down?, shared this perspective on the difference between honoring controversial figures versus Confederates: “With most American figures, certainly most presidents, you will find many reasons to actually criticize them and criticize their record, even our heroes… And I think most Civil War historians have been against Confederate statues—if not removal, at least with contextualization… I think the difference that Floyd’s murder has made is that most American citizens are finally realizing what they represent.”

While the Natural History Museum thoughtfully dismantles a controversial statue, other statues – specifically Confederate ones – are being toppled to the ground in public outcry as American citizens recognize that Confederate monuments serve the purpose of honoring Confederate ideology.

Here’s a quick reference on understanding those ideals: according to Essential Civil War Curriculum, “Confederate founders mostly replicated the U.S. Constitution, but … one of the few changes they made was explicit protection for slavery… Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens made this explicit in his well-known ‘cornerstone’ speech of March, 1861, in which he declared that the Confederacy’s ‘foundations were laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.” The curriculum goes on to explain, “There were two negative reference points against which Confederates defined themselves: the internal ‘other’ of the black slave and the external ‘other’ of the Yankee. Both practices had prewar roots. Dating back to the revolutionary and even the colonial era, white southerners had rested their developing sense of identity upon their differences from enslaved African Americans. White equality, freedom, democracy, and identity were all made possible by the denial of those opportunities to African Americans.”

Note: This marble statue of Alexander Stephens was installed at the United States Capitol in 1927 and in 2017 his decedents asked for it to be taken down because of his role in defending slavery. An article in AJC reported that “Brendan Stephens, a mental health therapist living in Athens, said the tide turned for him after the abrupt and deadly violence in Charlottesville, which was triggered by plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. ‘It is personal to a lot of people and I think there was a time when I wanted to believe the heritage versus hate idea… But if you really look at the history, that idea falls apart.”

Significant resources go into the upkeep of monuments. In 2018 Smithsonian Magazine published a special report with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute entitled The Cost of the Confederacy. Authors Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler spent months investigating the history and financing of Confederate monuments and sites, determining that, “Our findings directly contradict the most common justifications for continuing to preserve and sustain these memorials.”

Here’s why, as the authors report:

First, far from simply being markers of historic events and people, as proponents argue, these memorials were created and funded by Jim Crow governments to pay homage to a slave-owning society and to serve as blunt assertions of dominance over African-Americans.

Second, contrary to the claim that today’s objections to the monuments are merely the product of contemporary political correctness, they were actively opposed at the time, often by African-Americans, as instruments of white power.

Finally, Confederate monuments aren’t just heirlooms, the artifacts of a bygone era. Instead, American taxpayers are still heavily investing in these tributes today. We have found that, over the past ten years, taxpayers have directed at least $40 million to Confederate monuments—statues, homes, parks, museums, libraries and cemeteries—and to Confederate heritage organizations.

Walk into one of these sites and there’s a good chance that the gift shop offers items stamped with a Confederate flag, which the ADL has identified as a hate symbol: “Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans adopted the flag as a symbol of Southern heritage but the flag also served as a potent symbol of slavery and white supremacy, which has caused it to be very popular among white supremacists in the 20th and 21st centuries. This popularity extends to white supremacists beyond the borders of the United States.”

Heidi Beirich, who leads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s work tracking hate groups, explains in the Smithsonian’s special report that the sites enliven white supremacist imagination. “They are treated as sacred by white supremacists and represent what this country should be and what it would have been if the Civil War had not been lost.”

What does this kind of imagery do for the average American without extremist beliefs?

We checked in with the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris University to learn about how racist images and objects impact audiences. Here’s what their curator had to say on their website:

We’re not a museum in the traditional sense… We treat it like a laboratory. We don’t allow children to go in; we have restrictions about that. And in general, we don’t let people just go in by themselves. They have to go in with a facilitator, someone who’s been trained to explain what we have on exhibit here. A lot of people think they know about race and racism,” Pilgrim notes, “but they don’t. With this kind of memorabilia, these things are great visual aids in telling the story I am trying to tell. I see it as such a unique opportunity to teach people about race and racism in an educational setting.

Pilgrim is putting the images and objects into context for his audience, guiding them through a personal storytelling experience amid the museum’s 4,000+ racist artifacts, which according to their website includes everything from books to toys and dolls to salt-and-pepper shakers and ashtrays to postcards depicting lynchings. The website notes that the museum’s goal is to “educate the world about how the image of African-Americans was—and still is—decimated in U.S. culture… The history of these racist caricatures and the ways they were used to belittle Blacks and deny their humanity is explained.”

This is not dissimilar to the way Nazis dehumanized Jews in pre-Holocaust Germany. “Even before they took power in 1933, Hitler and the Nazi government set about implementing a series of four specific steps designed to result in the complete and total dehumanization of Europe’s Jewish population,” explains Jaine Toth in an article entitled Hitler’s 4-step Process for Dehumanizing the Jews.

Psychology Today defines the term this way: “Dehumanization involves redefining the targets of prejudice and violence by making them seem less human (that is, less civilized or less sentient) than other people. The classic strategy for this is to use terms like ‘animals’ and ‘vermin.’ Referring to people as ‘illegals’ is also dehumanizing. You’ll see dehumanization at work in most large-scale atrocities or genocides committed by governments, armies, or terrorists. The main purpose is to get people to accept or even engage in behaviors that they know are wrong.”

Brene Brown’s article Dehumanizing Always Starts with Language echoes this idea: “Dehumanizing always starts with language, often followed by images. We see this throughout history. During the Holocaust, Nazis described Jews as Untermenschen—subhuman. They called Jews rats and depicted them as disease-carrying rodents in everything from military pamphlets to children’s books. Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Indigenous people are often referred to as savages. Serbs called Bosnians aliens. Slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals… We can’t pretend that every citizen who participated in or was a bystander to human atrocities was a violent psychopath. That’s not possible, it’s not true, and it misses the point. The point is that we are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing, therefore we are all responsible for recognizing it and stopping it.”

Let’s read that last line again: “We are all vulnerable to the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizing, therefore we are all responsible for recognizing and stopping it.”

Are these controversial monuments participating in the slow and insidious practice of dehumanizating African-Americans?

The New York Times article George Floyd Protests Reignite Debate Over Confederate Statues quotes Lecia Brooks of the Southern Poverty Law Center saying yes, these monuments do indeed dehumanize, “There has been a consistent drive, primarily in the South, to remove these monuments… They are a constant reminder of the dehumanization of African-Americans and the pushback against our civil and human rights.”

And, with that knowledge, do we have a responsibility to recognize and stop it?

The Origin of Everything asks Why are there SO Many Confederate Monuments?, summarizing with this comment, “At the heart of this debate about monuments is the larger question about how and when we decide to commemorate history and whose stories are told… Monuments shape the public narrative of nations. They exemplify the stories we tell ourselves and each other about our collective past. This also brings to light who history belongs to, by highlighting and heroizing some while others are maligned, harmed, or altogether ignored… and bring into view exactly who history is supposed to be for.”


Graeme Wood, staff writer for The Atlantic, suggests a solution to what happens to these monuments and statues would be leaving them in place, but changing the way we think of them, ending the millions of dollars being invested in their upkeep. Wood writes in a think piece called Solution to the Confederate-Monument Problem: Destroying the statues won’t erase the past. Why not let them deteriorate in a public space instead?, “I would propose a lesson from postwar Germany, whose Nazi predecessors built monuments to themselves so large and ambitious that nothing short of aerial bombing could destroy them. We obliged in some cases. But one of the grandest Nazi dreams—the Nazi Party Rally Grounds in Nuremberg, site of the patriotic reverie Triumph of the Will—is still there, undisturbed. It is about five times the size of Monaco, and near downtown Nuremberg. You can visit it anytime you like.

It is not, however, lovingly maintained. There are no ticket-takers, and no guards in sight. Large portions are overgrown. Chain-link fences make it difficult to reach the central grandstand. On the structures, weeds grow up through cracks between the stones, and almost no signage notes that where you are standing, the Reichsführer and his deputies once inspected zeppelins and Hitlerjugend.”

You can browse a list of where the some 770 Confederate monuments are standing today on this Map of Confederate Statues.

If you have a topic you want to explore, let us know by sending an email to culturalconnections@mmjh.org.


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