The recent decisions to remove various statues and monuments across the nation presents, I believe, an opportunity for museums to play a vital part in this reevaluation of our nation’s history and to serve their communities in a vital way. While public opinion calls for the removal of these statues, I do not think it wise to destroy these monuments or to remove them totally from the public eye. Rather, it is the museum’s responsibility to conserve and preserve these pieces – painful as they may be – in order to further the conversations that are being initiated. In this way, we may continue to examine and evaluate our nation’s history, how it has thus far been taught and engaged with as well the important moments that are happening now.
I went to university in Richmond, Virginia. And anyone who has lived in or even just visited Richmond knows the prominent place that Monument Avenue holds in the city. With its lovely tree-lined cobblestone streets, Monument Avenue is an iconic part of the city; but it is also a highly contested area due to the Confederate figures that hold pride of place at various locations along the street. Some believe that these monuments should remain where they are as they serve as important symbols of the Confederacy and part of Richmond’s history; however, for many others, these memorials are a glorification of the city’s history with slavery and racism. Virginia Governor Northam has promised to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee although a court ruling on 8 June temporarily stymied efforts to remove the statue. Protestors have since taken matters into their own hands and toppled statues of Jefferson Davis and Christopher Columbus.
Richmond is certainly not the only city seeing the removal of its statues. In New York City, the American Museum of Natural History has made the decision to remove the monument of Theodore Roosevelt that has marked the museum’s entrance overlooking Central Park since 1940. The museum’s president, Ellen Futter, has remarked that it is the statue’s hierarchical composition that is being objected to, rather than Roosevelt himself. It is interesting to note, however, that the statue’s architect, John Russell Pope referred to the figures as a heroic group, while the sculptor, James Earle Fraser, remarked that the monument could even symbolize “Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” While this may have been the intention of those who are responsible to the statue’s placement, it is certainly not how it is being interpreted now, leading many to protest the monument and the decision to have it removed.
It is my hope that as we are reevaluating the various monuments placed around the nation, that museums would take the actions of the American Museum of Natural History as an example to follow. Prior to the decision to remove the Roosevelt statue, the museum held an exhibit exploring the history and addressing the issues that the statue presents. It includes the many different remarks and opinions of museum visitors, which would surely lead to further conversations and critical thinking amongst visitors to the exhibit. With this very recent decision to remove the statue, it is my hope that the statue will not be removed entirely from public view. Rather, I think it would be more constructive to have the removed monuments considerately placed – graffiti and all – within a museum, along with information of the various nuances that the statue represents and encouragement for visitors to stop and think about the issues that the monument presents to them as well as their own beliefs and attitudes.
What an opportunity museums can have now to encourage these conversations and help visitors to think about the past in ways that they hadn’t previously considered. History is often a complicated mess that can be painful to think about. And monuments can be painful reminders of these difficult and complicated histories. I believe that it is a museum’s responsibility to help their communities to engage with this history in its entirety and to not allow it to be forgotten. I see the removal of these monuments as an opportunity to create a deeper understanding of ourselves, our history, and each other. It will certainly be difficult. But I am just as certain that it is worth doing.