Atlanta History Center on Confederate monuments

The Atlanta History Center has released a guide to “Confederate Monument Interpretation,” including a Confederate Monument Interpretation Template, a Guide for Placing Monuments in Context, and a page for Research: Books and Latest News. This is a great resource for anyone in the public who wishes to research the history of a monument, consult with its stewards, and—ultimately—produce “reader rails,” or wayside markers that offer contextualizing history of said monument. It even offers sample (and customizable) text on the Lost Cause and other legacies of the Civil War. (This program assumes that monuments will stay in place, and that the community agrees on this course of action. But, as Kevin Levin notes, this may not be the desired course for your community.)

A few comments based on a quick read before I run off to class…

The focus on the Lost Cause era-context is great, but as long as the Lost Cause is described as the reframing of the war-in-memory as an effort to capture the moral high ground, it will always remain a genteel intellectual exercise. It needs to be more forcefully connected to the murderous violence against, and banal legal/social/cultural proscription of, African Americans that made the Lost Cause possible and sustained it. That history should be included because it feeds directly into answering the chief question—why is “contextualization” necessary? These templates, then, need to encourage the collection of countermemories of the monument, or historical events (e.g. lynchings, segregation laws) that corresponded to the erection of these monuments. I am reminded of Thomas Brown’s struggle to find documented resistance to the erection of monuments in Charleston, so community researchers may need to be prepared to collect modern oral histories that contain these countermemories. The point is that these proposed reader rails need to have antagonistic voices that drive home the interpretive points around the need for contextualization.

(North Carolina is lucky in that a database of the types of information these guidelines call for exist already at the Commemorative Landscapes website.)

Of course, for all we talk about contextualization, we don’t actually know if the addition of reader rails will actually work in conveying the contested nature of our memorial landscapes. It would be nice if these things could be prototyped and tested on actual people in memorial environments—public squares, courthouse lawns, cemeteries, etc. In fact, this is a wonderful opportunity to collect data on how passersby interact with these monuments before, and after, contexualization. Until we can prove their effectiveness with data, then we should always think of contextualization as a tentative proposition and not an effective solution.

The best part of this, of course, is that a museum has acted to be a part of this public dialog, rather than avoided it in an effort to skirt controversy. Way to go, Atlanta History Center! This initiative invites the public to reflect on the meaning of these monuments and does so in a way that promotes historical research and education. In fact, they should take a page from libraries and historical societies who sponsor genealogy workshops and sponsor public programs on researching your Confederate ancestor monument!

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