Monuments as learning objects?

I’m not in the monuments game. Plenty more—and more articulate—people think about them, comment on them, and envision a future for them. The discussion around them tends to fall into unfortunate binaries: removing them is censoring the past, keeping them is whitewashing history. It is neither and I’m not interested in entering a debate defined by those premises. I tend to agree with Kevin Levin’s position that the fate of monuments be left to the deliberations of local communities. Some places, like New Orleans, probably need to remove or reposition their marble Confederates. Others, like Hendersonville, can leave them be, and no one would be the wiser.

Gracie Bonds Staples, a columnist for the Atlanta Journal, agrees with historians who look to Confederate monuments as learning opportunities. She turns to Sheffield Hale, president of the Atlanta History Center, for insight. The AHC has done more than most museums to wade into this debate with a lesson plan in hand. Hale notes that “an honest examination of our history requires us to confront a painful, ambiguous past—an examination that for many is difficult, challenging and distressing. That examination can also be provocative, stimulating and inspiring.” Indeed.

But Hale’s justification (which I aspire to) is built on a couple of assertions that I believe are a bit problematic, or at least need more support. “History is not about celebration…It’s about examining everything good and bad that happened and learning something. In America we like to venerate things. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not history.” I agree. You agree. Everyone of my friends in academia and the museum profession agrees that veneration is not history. The problem is that virtually no one else agrees. Everyone else is fine with veneration. At least everyone else sees monuments as veneration and history together. The distinction lies where some are fine and others are not fine with what is being venerated. I suppose my point is that the work of getting the broader public to see history as we do is… well…. daunting, and I don’t know how to bridge the divide.

But that gets to Hale’s second claim, “What we’re saying is, think about them in a different way and see if you can convert them from objects of veneration to teachable historical objects.” This is a wonderful appeal to the power of history to bridge divides via empathy. Were it only so easy. I suppose that in all the public dialog about monuments, we can be relatively certain how advocates feel about them. They are, one way or another, reflections of power relations in the realm of memory, values, and modern civic and institutional life. What I keep getting back to, however, is that we don’t really understand how they convey lessons about the thing memorialized when people aren’t thinking about them… which is most of the time. What do drivers, walkers, joggers, stroller-pushers take away from these monuments right now?

More importantly, if we want to make them pedagogical tools, how do we do that in an environment in which most people will not notice and those that do will continue to view them as objects of veneration? The AHC program is a good start. I fear, however, that recontextualizing panels—using the analytical methods of historians—will not be enough. (I’ll repeat again that this conversation about the recontextualization of monuments is shamefully lacking in actual data on how they do, and can, work as teaching tools.) It will require a greater effort to invite the public to think of ways to shift the interpretive voice around these monuments, where necessary. How can these things be re-envisioned in such a way that they immediately evoke a sense of humility and reflection to those contingent visitors?

Debates over monuments as humility verses monuments as veneration is certainly nothing new in the United States. Just ask Maya Lin. I am reminded of last week’s public hearing in Greensboro regarding the proposed African American memorial on Union Square in Raleigh. Citizen speakers had a variety of ideas, but one constant emerged. The monument, they noted, needs to encompass and confront a sense of grief and sorrow that arose from oppression alongside an imperative to celebrate perseverance, progress, and aspiration. It struck me that no monument devoted to memory and veneration constructed by white Americans would even contemplate prioritizing oppression or complexity this way. Struggle? Maybe. But open wounds? I doubt it. (Please correct me if I am wrong.) How can we invite this African American voice to define the meaning of our monumental landscapes for the future?

And this is what I mean by interpretive voice of these monuments. New wayside markers will, I believe, have limited reach and getting the public to see these things as learning objects is a dim prospect (until actual audience research tells us otherwise). How, then, can we reincorporate (where the community desires it) Confederate monuments as the motifs of shame and grief in a larger monumental landscape that venerates true struggle?

Until then, I like what Hale Sheffield and the Atlanta History Center are doing.


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