The audit of national monuments analyzes our commemorative landscape



Photo: Amr Alfiky, National Geographic / Getty Images

In the United States, there are more monuments to mermaids than to women of Congress. Sit down with this: more monuments to mythical aquatic creatures than the real-life women who shaped the laws, rights, and freedoms that affect every person in the land. This finding comes from a new report by Monuments laboratory, a Philadelphia-based research studio that studies public art and history. In fact, he found an approximately 22: 2 ratio of statues of mermaids to women of Congress in his new Audit of national monuments.

So who exactly is the United States honoring in bronze? Thanks to the audit, we can answer this question with more confidence. Over the past year, thanks to funding from the Mellon Foundation, Monument Lab’s team of 30 researchers has delved into the country’s public archives of monuments – around 500,000 in total – with further analysis of the models. and trends in a smaller set of about 50,000. (The congress mermaid-to-women ratio is taken from the sample set.) This is not an exhaustive inventory of every statue, but rather of ‘a “panoramic snapshot of the monuments we have inherited,” says Paul Farber, co-founder of Monument Lab and co-director, with Sue Mobley and Laurie Allen, of the National Monument Audit. His release comes more than a year after protests aimed at statues representing white supremacy during the uprisings after the death of George Floyd, although the question of how to remember the country’s heaviest legacies is far from resolved. “We are hungry, as a culture, to understand who is represented and who represents,” says Farber.

Not from the Smithsonian Save the exterior sculpture The 1990 audit, which focused on the maintenance of outdoor statues, attempted to understand the country’s public monuments on a national scale. There is no overseeing government body or even a common definition of what a monument is. For audit purposes, Monument Lab defined it as “a statement of power and public presence”. And, overall, what the lab found was that monuments often had distortions, omissions, and deliberate misconceptions about our collective history.

These are the first 50 people to whom monuments are dedicated to them, according to the National Monument Lab audit. Most owned land and are male and white.
Photo: Courtesy of Monument Lab

Human memory, after all, is unreliable. It’s no exaggeration to think that the way we have inscribed memory into the landscape suffers from the same slippage – or manipulation, depending on who you ask. In the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2016 Survey on the Public Symbols of Confederation, most of the monuments of this oppressive regime were built after the South lost the civil war. “For some Americans, history is not what actually happened,” wrote the Atlanticby Clint Smith in an article on the myth of the lost cause. “That’s what they want to believe. The National Monument Audit found a similar revisionist trend in the pioneer-themed statues erected in the mid-20th century, more than a century after settlers moved west and the Gold Rush in California has started.

Revisionist history is powerful, and the notion that monuments are permanent makes them a privileged tool for those who want to advance their stories. “Historically, this has placed in the hands of those with officially approved power and resources the ability to shape the monumental landscape with their values ​​and visions in mind,” said Farber.

We can see it in the 50 people with the most monuments across America. Most of them were American presidents and generals who owned land and were born rich. Half-enslaved people. Only three are women: Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman and Sacagawea. And those depictions – like a statue of Lewis and Clark in Charlottesville circa 1919, standing proudly in front of a crouching Sacagawea, whose biography is unreliable – aren’t great to begin with (this one was recently deleted).

The Pioneers of women’s rights monument built in Central Park in New York City in August 2020 was an attempt to increase representation in the city’s public sculpture. It has aroused the ire of historically inaccurate portrayals of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Photo: Noam Galai / Getty Images

More broadly, the report states: “Violence is the most dominant topic of commemoration across the country. In monumental form, this fundamental feature of the country’s origins and national identity is presented without any recognition of the pain and trauma that has been inflicted. Not surprisingly, war monuments made up about a third of the monuments in the study ensemble and half of those in the national capital.

The audit confirms what many Americans already know about the links between these symbols and broader societal systems. Our monuments are not history, they are hegemony. And these systems don’t just build statues, they to keep them. Marble and bronze degrade, and the day-to-day care involved in oxidizing polishing or cleaning up bird droppings is an investment of time, resources and political influence, according to the report. The morning after protesters from the 2020 Philadelphia Uprising disfigured a statue of Frank Rizzo, the city’s former mayor and police commissioner who told the city to “vote white,” it was completely wiped clean – visual confirmation of what is most valuable: the status quo. (The statue has since been removed.)

But the authors also hope the audit can do more than confirm what we already know. It can guide the next generation of monuments. As Farber says, “The Audit calls to action are about our relationship with monuments to deepen knowledge and understanding, to examine how monuments evolve in their relationship to power, to imagine healing of monuments through generations and to support a profound change in representation. … It’s about multiplicity and complexity, not single voices.

Hank willis thomas All the power to all The sculpture was installed in the Thomas Paine Plaza in Philadelphia in 2017 as part of a Mural Arts and Monument Lab project to reinvent the city’s commemorative landscape.
Photo: AP / Shutterstock

We have examples at the local level. While local arts groups and local artists have traditionally relied on monuments, cities and national organizations are beginning to adapt. New York City completed its own audit in 2018 and found similar models among its monuments (there were mostly men, few women, and many colonialist ideals to walk through) such as the Monument Lab audit. In response, the city launched programs like She built NYC, which aims to increase the representation of women in public monuments, and recently commissioned a sculpture by Shirley Chisholm for Prospect Park.

But these well-meaning efforts haven’t always gone smoothly, often because we’re still grappling with the story itself. A proposed statue of women’s rights activists in Central Park has been criticized for omitting the work of black activists, and the solution – to add Sojourner Truth and have it in conversation with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who left black women out of their suffrage efforts – was historically inaccurate. And in San Francisco, a monument to Maya Angelou was rejected by municipal authorities because they wanted something that looked like a traditional figurative representation.

Perhaps one of the most important recommendations of the audit is to accept that monuments are neither permanent nor timeless. As the report says, they must “meet the demands and aspirations of our time”. And this redefinition process is already in place, since Mellon funded the Lab’s next big project, Regeneration, which will provide $ 100,000 each to ten art and justice projects to change the perspective of what commemorative landscapes can be, either by creating new works or by adapting an existing commemoration.

The Monument to Emancipation and Freedom, in Richmond, Virginia, was dedicated on September 23, 2021.
Photo: Jay Paul / REUTERS

Just weeks before the audit was published, a trailer of cranes, aerial work platforms and flatbed trucks pulled up to the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. They were there to remove the 12-ton statue of the Confederate General, who had dominated the area since 1890. A group of about 150 enthusiastic spectators gathered, which was smaller than the crowd that had gathered around the area. statue after the murder of George Floyd last summer. But still, those who gathered were intensely emotional. Devon Henry, the owner of the construction crew hired for the move, hugs his mother when the statue fell. The statue of Lee was finally carried away at an undisclosed state storage facility while plans for its future are finalized.

Farber was also in the crowd, with the latest National Audit tests in his backpack. The audit follows the removal of monuments, and this was the most recent of a multitude of Confederate monuments and symbols, about 170 in all, which have been dismantled since 2015. Seeing cranes lower Lee’s statue to the ground, after so many years of calls from local residents to remove it, “has been a profound moment to register,” says Farber. Two weeks later, Richmond unveiled the Monument of emancipation and freedom on Brown’s Island, about two miles southeast of where the Lee monument once stood. It is made up of two 12-foot-tall bronze statues depicting a newly freed man, woman, and infant from slavery. The monument, sponsored by the Dr Martin Luther King Memorial Commission, has been under construction for more than seven years.

While the moment the removal of a Confederate monument happened so close to the installation of a monument celebrating emancipation looked like a symbolic turn of the page, it was actually a coincidence. Governor Northam’s order to remove Lee’s statue in June 2020 had been blocked in the courts, while the Emancipation Statue was originally due to be unveiled in 2019 to mark 400 years since the the first registered slaves were brought to America.

Such transformations in our commemorative landscapes are to be welcomed. “It’s not a zero-sum game,” says Farber. “There are people who give the impression that there is a binary. You want them deleted, or you want them there. But there is a constant change in the monuments and in this country. Monuments are not fixed. They are not faultless.


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