Since Saturday’s violent white nationalist rally further clarified the relationship between Confederate monuments and white supremacist thought, similar statues have come down in Baltimore, Brooklyn, and Durham. They join a number of memorials in other states previously slated for removal or trashed altogether: Even Boston’s single, modest tribute to the War of Northern Aggression’s veterans, basically just a few feet of stone on an uninhabited island, is hastily boarded up as its keepers figure out what to do.
A feud between two groups has been fueled anew: one that wants to preserve monuments mostly installed during the 20th century, and in particular during moments of white anxiety over black civil rights, in order to memorialize a history in which the correct America is a white supremacist state; another that believes cheap, racist sculptures should probably just be torn down. In a scramble to offer the most placating option to both, politicians have invoked what sounds like a very reasonable solution: Place the statues in a museum, where sensitive and complex histories can quietly be observed.
For example: “I don’t think you should erase what your history is, good or bad,” Republican Representative Tom Rooney told The Hill on Thursday. “I don’t want to see those statues destroyed—but I think there’s a better place for them.”
That proper resting place, for Rooney and a number of others hoping the appearance of compromise will cool the issue, has yet to be defined. But in Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings delegated responsibility to a task force, which will design a respectful tribute to the Confederate monuments, aided by the local Holocaust museum.
Setting aside the significant cost (in New Orleans, just removing the monuments carried a bill of over $2 million) of moving and preserving what in many cases are hollow mass-produced statues, the question remains: If we were to lovingly “contextualize” the many hundreds of Confederate monuments that remain in the United States, what would that exhibition look like? And would a museum even want them?
“I know the curator of the Museum of the Confederacy [in Virginia] wouldn’t be thrilled with the idea that 7,000 monuments would be postmarked to him,” says Eleanor Jones Harvey, a senior curator at the Smithsonian who recently put together an exhibition of Civil War art. “No museum is able or willing to take a massive number of these.” And, she says, 90% of the statues have “next to no aesthetic value...They’re not great art.”
Harvey suspects that the majority of the statues aren’t historically significant enough to be worth moving and preserving, and she rejects the idea that adding a little historical information would properly soften their intended message. (As another historian I interviewed asked rhetorically: “What are you going to do, write down the name of the horse they’re riding?”)
“You can’t leave these things in public view and write a new plaque that says, ‘These are now symbols of racial oppression’” Harvey says. “And, as we’ve found in art museums, very few people read the labels anyway.” Only the most valuable and historically significant monuments, she argues, should be kept. She’d like to see them confined to existing Civil War battleground sites.
Patricia C. Davis, a professor at the University of Georgia who’s written on black cultural identity and the Civil War, thinks putting Confederate sculptures in museums “isn’t at all connected to the work that monuments do,” and she isn’t sure where that idea came from “except as a response to the argument that they shouldn’t be removed.”
She’d prefer to see the sculptures destroyed, melted down, and recast as tributes to figures who actually resonate with a city’s population. As she points out, many of the contested sites are in towns with majority-black populations, anyway, and there are countless prominent historical figures in cities like Richmond and Charlottesville who aren’t white.
In the States, we have a fetish for big buildings where the important objects of history are anointed, preserved, and explained: There are more museums in America than there are McDonalds and Starbucks combined, most of them sustained by wealthy donors and overseen by board members with a preference for the specific memory they’re preserving. As Megan Kate Nelson, another Civil War historian, says: “As a nation we prefer to erase our history of trauma in public.”
Nelson’s book, Ruin Nation, is a study of what was physically erased immediately after the battles of the Civil War: Within a generation, she writes, the crumbling walls and destroyed cities left behind were cleaned up and re-utilized, as if the war itself never happened. She’d prefer to see the Confederate statues in civic spaces, she says, where they aren’t cloistered away as relics of the past.
“We shouldn’t just shove them all off into somewhere you have to pay to get into,” she says. And properly memorializing a white supremacist past could be impossible in this country and this climate, anyway; look at how long it took to get a museum of African-American history launched and placed in the mall.
Instead Nelson would like to continue the work of the activists in Durham as a taxpayer-funded project and create historical ruins—let people smash the Confederate statues, she says, and leave them that way.