As the Statues Fall: A Conversation About Monuments and the Power of Memory
In the wake of global civil unrest following the brutal killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Elijah McClain, and countless others at the hands of police in the United States, Black Lives Matter protestors and their allies have critiqued the anti-Black racism imbued in the erection and maintenance of Confederate historical monuments. The legacy of social movements seeking to remove Confederate statues is long-standing. However, unlike in previous movements, what began as the forced removal of Confederate statues during protests has rippled to the removal of colonialist, imperialist, and enslaver monuments all over the world. In this webinar, scholars and artists share their insights on the power of monumentality and the work they are doing to reconfigure historical markers.
Tiffany Cain, Ph.D., Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Princeton Society of Fellows for the Liberal Arts
“The Monuments That Won’t Fall” by La Vaughn Belle
“Lowering the Gaze: The Acropodium in I Am Queen Mary” by La Vaughn Belle
The Society of Black Archaeologists, the Indigenous Archaeology Collective, the Cornell Institute of Archaeology and Material Studies, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and SAPIENS.
>> Tiffany Cain: Hi, everyone. We are going to get everyone get signed in here and we will get started momentarily. We are so pleased with how many of you are able to log in. The number of attendees is still climbing here, so just give it a moment and we will get started here soon.
All right. Let’s go ahead and get started. This will continue to jump on the call as we go today. I’m so pleased to see how many of you were able to join us. Almost a thousand and counting from all over world. So hello to everyone and welcome.
I am going to begin by introducing myself. My naval is Tiffany Cain. And I’m currently a postdoctoral fellow in Princeton University where I lecture in the humanities. In addition to that, I hold an affiliation as a consulting scholar at the museum at the University of Philadelphia.
My own work centers on notions and projects of reckoning with the political violence of colonialism. I think especially about the materiality of that violence, and the ways that varying durabilities of some materials of violence influence collective memory and political consciousness in the present, as well as the ways that we understand those influences as we begin to imagine our collective futures.
And to sit with these kinds of issues, I typically am engaged in conversations across archeology, cultural anthropology, history, and my current field research is located in southeastern Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula. And essentially I think it’s a really important project to also be creating generative dialogues between indigenous, Black ‑‑ so that’s what I spend my time on ask it’s my great honor to be convening the conversation between today’s panelists, whom I admire immensely and whose work I understand as similarly multimobile and (inaudible). So I will introduce them momentarily.
First however I want to recognize that we’ve convened this group of scholars, artists, activists today in the wake of global civil unrest spurred at least in part by the brutal killings of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement in the United States.
Among these we remember Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Oscar Brant, Breonna Taylor Ahmaud Arbery George Floyd Tony McDade, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Sandra Bland, Elijah McCain, Eric Garner, the list goes on and on. But rather than parrot the now well‑rehearsed and countless others, I remind us that their lives are not countless. They can and must be accounted for.
The killers can and must be brought to justice. How to achieve that justice, in its specific sense in some ways beyond the scope of today’s conversation. So suffice it to say Black Lives Matter.
Now, the organizers and their allies have extended their critiques of anti‑Black police violence to the anti‑Black racism imbued in the erection of racists and conquistadors across our shared worlds. This is the impetus for our conversation today and will be an important theme throughout it.
But we understand that that conversation is embedded in larger problems of governmentality and state sanctioned violence that have taken so many lives over the years and that provide conditions for adjacent issues like those highlighted by missing and murdered indigenous women. Our fates are bound together.
With those fates in mind, then, I also invite to you acknowledge and reflect on your potential complicity in the ongoing occupations on native indigenous home lands and the deep seated relationships those occupations have to the questions of memory, historical representation, erasure and justice wherever you may live, work, or study, themes that will be central to the conversation we will be having today.
I join you all today from unceded territories in present‑day Virginia. So as the title of today’s conversation invokes, we are entering a watershed moment where monuments across the globe are being rethought and removed, from the toppling of Edward Colton to the longstanding roads must fall movement unprecedentedly swift removal of monuments to the confederacy that’s occurring now across the United States to the worldwide tearing down of Columbus statues or even and in some spheres more controversially the removal of memorial of Gandhi, examples of all the this live and livelihood amidst the Global COVID‑19 pandemic that we are all now confronted with every day.
For those of you who are interested in following the trajectory of these removes, I will draw your attention to the when they came down project and to Wikipedia which is hosting a crowd sourced list of monument removes since the killing of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I encourage you to participate in growing that archive if you are so able.
And as many of us have witnessed over the years, there have been provocative responses from artists. Today’s esteemed panelists included among them. Though it would appear the question of what should be done with contested monuments and other symbols such as flags, currency images, buildings and mascots, whether they should be removed or amended.
It’s a question that has yet to be resolved in many arenas. This is one of the themes I also Hope we will take on today. Now, I would like to introduce you to our panelists, but before doing so, I also want to offer gratitude to all of you for joining us, and to the events sponsors.
Specifically, I would like to thank assistant professors Justin co‑founders of the Society of Black Archeologists, Professor Adam Smith from the Cornell Institute of Archeology and Material Studies, Dr. Danilyn Rutherford, president of the Wenner‑Gren Foundation.
I also extend our gratitude to Catherine for running tech today, Joshua Edwards for providing the closed captioning and Dr. Laura for live streaming this event. Thank you all for envisioning what I am confident is going to be an evocative discussion.
All right. So it’s now my great pleasure to introduce our esteemed colleagues. We will begin with LaVaughn Belle. LaVaughn Belle is a multimodal mixed media artist who makes visible the unremembered. She is finished up her tenure as a fellow social justice institute at the Barnard resource center for women at Columbia University.
Hers is a project that creates narratives which challenge colonial hierarchies in the invisibility of disavowed members of our society and their histories.
And her work, she attends to the material culture of coloniality or the modes of colonialism that continue to render our worlds. Her collection Cheney we live in fragments, broken white wears and porcelain recovered on the surface of former Dutch plantation estates after heavy rains in the Virgin Islands. I’m in Virginia ‑‑ in the Virgin Islands. Belle is the co‑creator of the artist‑led monumental world “I am Queen Mary,” pictured here counterpart to Michelangelo’s David that confronts Spanish college amnesia.
Legacies of resistance by captive Africans who were brought to the Danish west Indies. Queen Mary is the infamous leader of the fire burn ‑‑
Putting Black women figures in public spaces said to be an important driver of some of Bell’s work. She was among the finalists for the she built New York City project to develop a monument to memorialize the legacy of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to United States Congress. She designed in her words reinterprets Shirley Chisholm’s famous quote. If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.
Just a few days ago, she released a beautiful photo essay embodiment of colonial histories and telling the world we are the monuments that will not fall.
Welcome, LaVaughn. Next I would like to introduce Nicholas Galanin, Tlingit/Unangax multidisciplinary artists from sit ska Alaska. BFA in London and his MFA at a university. Arts fellowship from Open Society Foundations.
Nicholas embeds incisive observation into his work engaging contemporary culture and its connection to land, form, image, sound, Galanin describes his process as one that engages past, present, and future, sits both obscures memory and ongoing barriers to the acquisition of knowledge.
He employees materials and processes that expand dialogue on digits artistic production and how culture can be carried. His work is in numerous public and private collections and exhibited worldwide including at the Peter Blum gallery and the Hurst Museum where he showcases multimodal experiences including the piece that you see here which reclaims the body of a taxidermy bear shot and killed in the 20th century.
Recent works include the imaginary Indian totem pole which comments on the commoditization of indigenous artistic and cultural forms and misappropriation. Or this one, Indian children’s bracelet which speaks to the forced removal the indigenous children from their homes and communities and their matriculation into residential boarding schools.
Unabashedly political, his work has been called generous, unflinching and poetic. Here you see a head‑turning installation, shadow on the land which he produced as a response to what might be done with the monument to captain cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. As someone who also practices archeology, I’m moved by their engagement with material removals and invocation of archeological methods in the artistic process. I’m excited to think through with them what that materiality does for this particular kind of conversation. Welcome, Nicholas.
Next I introduce Dr. Dell Upton, a distinguished research professor of architectural history in the department of art history at the University of California Los Angeles. Before UCLA he taught in Berkeley and Virginia. He is an architectural historian whose interests includes specific monuments, the African‑American built environment after emancipation and the world history of architecture.
Among his many distinguishes books and articles which center on vernacular landscapes and the American built environment, he offers important critiques of the school thought known as new urbanism and heritage tourism, and these works abound. A few of them here, holy things and profane, Anglican parish churches in colonial Virginia, urban life and urban space in the new American republic.
Most recently American architecture, a thematic history and most currently to today’s discussion, what can and can’t be said, race, uplift and monument building in the contemporary south which is published by Yale University Press in 2015. What can and can’t be said is a study of monuments to the civil rights movement and Black history that have been erected in the American south over the past three decades. Dr. Up ton is currently working on a study of Black churches and cemeteries. Welcome, Dell.
And finally I introduce Tsione Wolde‑Michael who has a background in African and American studies and is currently curator at the Smithsonian National History in Washington, D.C. Tsione’s decade long experience includes co‑creating the landmark 2016 slavery and freedom show at the Smithsonian National Museum of African‑American history and culture which has been recognized for its role in transforming understandings of slavery in the United States and the African‑American experience broadly. Tsione’s work in collection management, cultural heritage and exhibitions is grounded in innovative approaches to community engagement museum studies. A prime example being the community engagement project of the Smithsonian National Museum of African‑American history and culture which you see depicted here.
Most recent work and one I hope she will spend good time speaking with us about today includes a special joint initiative, the Juneteenth collective initiative that aims to document the history of the Black Lives Matter movement from 2012 to the present.
Now ordinarily this would be the moment where I would ask you all to join me in welcoming your esteemed guests here today, but as they cannot hear you, I will take the time to briefly review some of the logistics for the remainder of the conversation. You may already notice the chat function is disabled, but there’s a Q&A function in its place.
If you have a question, or food for thought that you would like us to consider, submit it with the Q&A function. Other attendees can view these questions, respond to them and upvote them by clicking like. Someone on our team will monitor them. As we move our conversation along I also plan to specifically address audience questions towards the latter half of the discussion.
Please vote questions to the top as they will be posed to our panelists in order of demand. I also acknowledge that the themes of this discussion may elicit critical but emotional responses, and we welcome that engagement and challenging questions that you may raise. But please be reminded to do so in a respectful manner.
So without further ado, welcome. I will begin us with an anchoring question. Do feel free to tweet as you see on the screen here as well. That’s a mode of engagement that we are encouraging today. But again, use that Q&A function.
So let’s get started. I would like to ask all of you speakers in light of the introductions that I provided, if you could offer your thoughts on this moment, and what might be different about it. We know that monuments have long been sites of contestation, proponents of various social movements in the United States for instance have been calling for the removal of monuments to contentious political and social figures for decades.
But I’m curious what you think has changed. I’ve clearly suggested that BLM has played a major role, but the question of why now is still pertinent. What role does embodied representation have to play in the movement for Black Lives and what might this mean for the future of monumental and memorial practices? So with that, I open the floor. Welcome, everyone.
>> Nicholas Galanin: Thank you.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I think for me, it definitely has a lot to do with the pandemic and this kind of slowing down of time. You know, when we think about what monuments are, they are this way of kind of concretizing a moment. And I feel like we are in kind of this monumental moment. And so I think that that also has a lot to do with, you know, this global, this Global audience and this global movement in terms of thinking, rethinking statues. I have to, personally, I mean, I was at first quite despondent at a lot of the protests when they first began because I felt like, you know, we have seen this before. This is just kind of another cycle. You know, I was in college when Rodney King was murdered, and so there was also this eruption. But to see them again was a feeling of more despondency.
But there was something really hopeful when I started seeing that people were beginning to take sculptures down and tossing them into the ocean. And I think I’m curious to hear about what the other panelists think about this relationship between this kind of symbolic violence that a lot of these statues have represented, and then the physical violence, both that was enacted upon George Floyd but also that was reenacted as statues.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: Well, I will pick on that. So with respect to public history, I think it is precisely what you are saying, there’s this articulated resistance on the part of the public to white supremacy. And I should mention by extension a critique of the ways that museums and public space also reflect colonial histories and ongoing racism.
And of course, there are those people who are literally taking history into their own hands and changing the narrative. They are altering the visual landscape and layering the present moment onto it.
And by doing so, they are actively dictating what should be preserved and what should not. From a heritage perspective, destruction is typically frowned upon, but right now it’s being celebrated. So this moment feels different for a number of reasons on top of the fact that this movement is more diverse than we’ve seen before. It’s international.
As was already mentioned, there’s the back drop of COVID. But we also can’t forget that this moment has been decades in the making, and so while the changes that we’re seeing today in some ways feel surprisingly quick, in reality, they have been painfully slow. And the sad truth of the matter is that this shift in what’s happening with monuments is partly predicated on Black death.
So there this is lingering question embedded there of how many Black people had to die for us to get to this point?
>> Nicholas Galanin: I would like to add to that too, and thank you for that. Just for mentioning that, yes, this is not new. This isn’t new to our communities. The white supremacist narrative is not sustainable, and that is seen in our communities. It’s seen in the health of our communities. It’s seen in the destruction of the environment that we are continually faced with.
And it’s a matter of time before these myths are revealed and before truth in our voice is upheld through the work of the community that is participating in the continuum of this right now, and still fighting for a voice and a platform or a space to tear down some of these representations of that.
>> LaVaughn Belle: Go ahead.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I was just going to say I think that’s a great point to think about the future of monuments, too. You know, that it really depends on us recognizing the real, the real truth of the matter which is that we have been living in a society that’s preferred to preserve these monuments to traitors rather than attempt to heal historical trauma.
So with the monuments coming down, there’s still the question of how will we do that work? I’m sure we will begin to discuss, but there are a range of people who are responding creatively to this including you all. But I also think to pick up on what you were saying, the future, it’s not up to us or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be done by engaging those people who have contended with the pain and the tragedy of this history and privileging their wants and needs.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I know for me right now in the Virgin Islands we also do have some problematic sculptures that we have been asking to be removed. And I find it really interesting, the question also when the statues don’t fall, what happens even among a moment like this where you see people all over the world doing this.
What does it say about a community that even in that moment there still is an inability to extract yourself from this myth? Like, that we are not taking them down. I’m also very wondering and questioning Virgin Islanders who are still, we are still a colony of the United States. And we live in such colonial symbolic violence from the names of our towns, our, you know, the sugar mills that are scattered throughout our landscape.
We kind of live in the remnants of forced labor camps. So I find that interesting as well. Like, of course the conversation is about the monuments that are coming down and what may happen with them. But I also still find it interesting the ones that are still up and why? What’s happening in communities as to why they are not responding to take them down?
>> Tiffany Cain: Absolutely, a certain level of trepidation that continues to show itself. And there are certain other kinds of legal constructs and social constructs that are preluding those kinds of movements as well that I think often get side lined in the conversation that even when we might desire to remove them, cause problems for actually seeing those things through.
And we have obviously seen that many people have decided to take that into their own hands, lately. But there are certain aspects like the naming of buildings, for instance, which we have seen slower, slower movements on that require certain levels of bureaucratic process, right. I was going to say you have been dealing with these things for a while. So it would be great to hear from you on this.
>> Dell Upton: Well, the first thing I would say is that I was surprised by how quickly this happened. I agree with LaVaughn that this does have to do with the pandemic in the sense that in some very practical senses, that streets and roads have been emptier, that long‑term large‑scale kinds of demonstrations and actions can take place now in ways that they couldn’t take place in normal life.
That there’s less going onto distract people. The next issue hasn’t come along to distract people who aren’t centrally involved in it. So the public in general has paid more attention.
But I also think as everyone has pointed out, that’s the kind of contingent circumstance. The long‑term circumstance is that these statues have been controversial since they were put up, except that the people who objected to them they weren’t listened to.
And that the reason so many are coming down so fast is that people in authority have stalled for so long. And with a variety of excuses that have to do with peripheral things like heritage and history and not with the central issue, the central issues at hand.
So the statues in a way become a kind of, are a symbolic conflict over deeper issues that still need to be dealt with.
You mentioned legal structures and so on. And I sent you some images of the confederate monument in Birmingham. That’s a good example of that. Many southern states, some southern cities have laws forbidding the removal of confederate monuments. They disguise it in various ways be but that’s what it’s about.
Alabama has a particularly egregious one. It says not only can you not move it, you can’t move it, rename it, add to it, subtract from it. You can’t do anything that would alter the message that it offers. So I sent you a photograph of the obelisk with a plywood ball around it to obscure the inscription.
The state of Alabama sued the city over that. The city won in lower court. The state carried it to the state Supreme Court which said they had to take it down. Take the wall down. And furthermore, that they could be fined $25,000 for violating that law, which would go to the historic preservation fund for the state.
One of the Supreme Court judges, the only dissent in the case was a judge who said they should be ‑‑ the city should be fined $25,000 a day for every day the wall was up. During the George Floyd protest, the city took it down anyway and the state Attorney General has vowed to enforce the law against the city.
But now I have seen over the last few days that a number of Alabama mostly rural primarily Black counties have voted to take their down as well. So I think I’m hoping that the numbers of people, the numbers of places making that choice will lead to the removal of all of those monuments and will show the state how futile that is.
But there is a sense, the people who are against taking down monuments understand that these represent a social order that they want to retain. And so they come up with all kinds of diversionary arguments of that space what it is. We still support the values these monuments represent.
>> Tiffany Cain: Thank you for that. We actually have a question that I think would be good to weave in right now with that conversation in mind, from the audience, which is whether or not shifting attention onto the monuments is shifting attention away from systemic change and putting it on symbolic change.
And so I would like us to just spend a little bit more time about whether the links between systemic and symbolic change and what work you think needs to be done maybe at that intersection, or if they are really separate realms and how we begin to approach those questions if you guys have any thoughts on that.
>> Nicholas Galanin: I would like to mention something here with a lot of that resistance as you say being people actually resisting the ideologies or the political aspects of what these monuments might represent more so than the actual object itself.
And we are ‑‑ our communities are not here to tiptoe around what necessary change or systematic change might be. We need it right now. We want it right now. We are not waiting for more children or family members to be murdered at the hands of these ‑‑ these realities, I suppose, that we are living in right now.
And I think it’s necessary. And so, yes, these need to come down. What happens with them, the price of bronze is a dollar 48 market value right now. And there’s lots of programs in education, art programs in schools that have no funding for materials. Let the children or let anybody else build something with that. I don’t care. But to have these and to act as if it’s some form of heritage while denying our communities human rights is absolutely insane to me.
>> LaVaughn Belle: Yeah, I think that’s probably something that we’ll keep going back to, what happens to the sculptures after. And I also, I’m more interested in the questions that Nicholas also just raised about the systemic change. But I do, as someone who lives in a colony of the United States, I do really understand colonization, it is a material reality, but it’s also something that happens in your being.
And for me it’s actually really important to start thinking symbolically because it’s the imagination where in some ways we have our most power. If you can’t begin to think about divesting symbolically, how do you move to the material? That’s a conversation that happens a lot. You know. As someone who has worked with monuments or just even in art, people always ask that question. What is art really doing?
And I think art, it creates a space for this conversation to happen. And that’s, how do you move to action if you don’t begin in the dialogue part? You know, so, so yeah, that’s how I feel. I’m curious to hear what others think. You have to unmute!
>> Tiffany Cain: Tsione?
>> Dell Upton: When I give talks, people often say, but will removing monuments really change anything? And my response is usually, if you are not willing to do something as simple as removing a monument, how can you be ‑‑ how can you claim that you are interested in making serious change? So there is that monuments are important as symbols in that sense. And they are important as symbols in another sense that goes beyond the meaning of particular monuments or the goodness or badness of particular subjects of monuments. That is, they create an entire landscape of political and civic imagination, even if we never pay any attention to the statue of Robert E. Lee that we walk by, his presence there says that that is a legitimate part of our civic life, that he belongs there, that the values he represents belong there and deserve to remain there.
So I think one of the things we need to do in thinking about monuments is move beyond individual monuments to think about the entire civic narrative that’s told by the body of monuments. That’s why I think it’s interesting to see that protesters have, in the south have moved beyond destroying confederate monuments to destroying monuments to Columbus and other kinds of monuments that are part of that larger civic narrative.
And I think that’s part of what worries people about tearing them down, is that they are being asked to rethink not just whether this person was admirable or not, but the entire mythology that they have been taught and that they’ve lived in through their lives.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I actually really love that, because, you know, when we put up the monument in Denmark in Copenhagen, it’s so interesting that so many people, one of the critiques that we have had of the sculpture is that we don’t have a lot of historical narrative attached to the work.
And we have had so many people write us very upset that we were not doing this job of describing who and what she is and why. And for me, I have always pushed back on that and I have said, you know, even if you didn’t know, first of all, the sculpture can’t be reduced just to who Mary Thomas was or the fire burner or so many other things, we cannot put that in a plaque.
However, even if you don’t know who she is, it is a two‑story image of a Black woman. And I think that that, especially in a place like Copenhagen, like, it shifts your sense of knowledge, especially if you don’t know who she is, because all of the sudden you realize that there’s something in the public space that’s important enough to claim the space. And I don’t know what that is.
And I think especially when you are thinking about white supremacy, that’s actually a very important disruptor to that, to understand that you are not the person that is the be‑all and center of all knowledge, that there are other people who have heros that are just as important because here she is. So, yeah.
>> Dell Upton: Exactly.
>> Nicholas Galanin: I think the reality, too, of drawing line through time with a lot of these narratives, that being said, are like the nation of the U.S. is such a nation in comparison to the history of indigenous people on the land here. And these monuments or these statues actively erase that history and those people on indigenous ‑‑ on unceded indigenous land, often.
And in doing so, it creates a purposeful amnesia towards community to celebrate nationalism among building nations, the violence and genocide it takes to build a nation and it takes these mascots or icons of history. We oftentimes here in the U.S. in public education are taught the narrative of Columbus discovering, or as in the work in Australia right now, the Biennial of Sydney with the cook monument, the statue down there has a discovery, you know, it’s got a discovery narrative on it.
And what is removed from that? You look at the Mount Rushmore in the history of that in unceded land and the history of that space, too. There’s so much that’s actively and purposefully forgotten. And it’s at the cost of our communities.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I will just add about this idea of civic narrative, I think that BLM prompts us to imagine what an antiracist pro‑Black way of remembering might look like, which is a productive place to start. And, you know, the work I think of symbolic representation, and LaVaughn’s work shows this, too. It isn’t symbolic at all in this instance. It’s really. It’s about erasure like Nicholas is saying. It’s about the fear and intimidation that these objects represent that’s grounded in actual violence. And it’s about long histories of people of color, you know, assaulting racist monuments like the John Calhoun statue in Charleston.
That wasn’t a symbolic act for Black people chipping away at that statue in the 1890s. You could be killed for that. And today there are FBI wanted posters out on people who have defaced monuments.
So for BLM, this has really gone beyond an interest in symbolism alone. The goal isn’t just to take down a statue because the issue of symbolic representation is like we are saying, it’s a systemic one. So as a political movement, BLM has not only interrogated monuments and memorials. It’s gone a step further by, you know, calling museums and other institutions to task for the ways that they are colonial entities for the controversial collections that they hold, how they haven’t hired enough staff of color, especially in curatorial ranks. And as art and history institutions issue these Black Lives Matter statements, people are publicly slamming them for only providing lip service to these commitments. And what has been heartening for me to see is people in the movement are also trying to document internally and participate in these conversations on commemoration and begin to figure outs how they can represent their own narratives for themselves.
>> Tiffany Cain: That’s great. Maybe you could speak for a moment about some of your work around collecting BLM movement archive and what that’s looked like. And we have a great or excuse me, a great question from one of our attendees, also, about the ways that monuments are being altered by protesters as they rewrite this history, participate in rewriting this history and whether or not then the monuments, for instance, once the figurative is taken down, the plinth is left and it’s covered in graffiti and reworking in artistic and otherwise quite forward statements about our current situation, right, whether those ought to be left up as newly created forms of art and where that sort of fits in the material archive of this particular moment, but also as you mentioned, the very longstanding attempt at shifting these narratives through variously symbolic acts of revision.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I was saying I think that was a question to you about the work that you were doing.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: So if the question is pitched to me on BLM, so right now the Smithsonian is engaged in a very special joint collecting initiative that brings together the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of African‑American History, and the Anacostia Museum to do collecting work that initially started around the Black Lives Matter protest at Lafayette Square in our backyard, and has since extended to a broader consideration of how we might document the movement from 2012 onward.
And so when we think about the importance of the Smithsonian, like, we are thinking about a place that at least I will speak for my unit, the National Museum of American History, has some of the oldest and largest collections in political reform.
So it’s about thinking about how do we inject this history into the archive. And change the way that it looks.
But it’s also, so we are looking at traditional ways of documenting reform and political activism, particularly at the national level and thinking about the typical things you might expect, ephemera, buttons, banners, protest posters, T‑shirts.
But we are also really interested in the ways that policing is taking place, militarization, the violence response to these protests. And we are doing this work in very, very close consultation with organizers and local communities. That is really the driving force behind the ways that we approach our collecting.
And that’s something that I think distinguishes us from other similar collecting initiatives at other institutions.
>> LaVaughn Belle: You know, when you were talking about the archive and what exists there and thinking about your work as almost transforming the archive, you know, I actually want to bring to attention a part of our monument I am Queen Mary that is often, that people don’t engage with at first.
Most people see it as a portrait of a woman, and it is that. It’s a reenactment of a performance piece, joining our bodies together. It’s many things. But actually it’s two sculptures in one. And so half of that sculpture are corral stones that were brought out of the ocean by enslaved Africans that formed the foundation of most of the colonial era buildings in the Virgin Islands that are very much part of our landscape.
They are there. But we often don’t see the meaning. We often don’t realize that these are, you know, people’s hands that touched them, that this is another kind of archive to the labor and to the true wealth and foundation of these colonial societies.
So I think that’s also interesting, too, the ways that you can think about things that have become invisiblized, or used I guess reshaped the archive or take parts of the archive that already exist and kind of rematerialize it.
And I was really interested, Nicholas, in your work with the shadow, because it also felt very archeological. You know, but in an inverted way. So I was curious if that monument was of a particular person? Was it?
>> Nicholas Galanin: Yeah, that work shadow on the land in excavation was of the Cook statue in Hyde Park. In Australia, the narrative of Cook discovering what is known as some of the oldest known civilizations documented in the world, really, and so the irony of discovery erasing all of the actively to uphold this belief in this narrative of becomes largely political as well, and how even here in the U.S. indigenous communities fight erasure for something like the government, the convenience of no indigenous history means that it’s manifest destiny in all access to resource and land without the hindrance of indigenous communities or histories, in a way.
So yes, that work was taken into consideration, 250th anniversary in Australia coming up which as you know like many colonial holidays something that gets supported by government and heavily funded. I would say in the U.S., versions of this might be the 4th of July or other ‑‑ in Alaska, we have Alaska Day which is the day that Russia sold what is known as Alaska unceded indigenous territory and land, to the United States.
So, yeah, working with this project, shadow on the land, is also a reference to that shadow to, that colonial shadow that is ‑‑ hold on one second, sorry. That colonial shadow that is cast over all of our histories and land. And with that, the shadow also comes with destruction of an environment through resource extraction, et cetera. And the excavation of that shape is in the form of that monument, the process of that is archeology which is also I would like to highlight, a process and science that is largely used to uphold white supremacist narratives when talking about indigenous history the. You mentioned some of the conversations about museums and relationships to museums. And then, of course, the other side of the conversation that’s always upheld is, well, this is history. Don’t erase it, et cetera.
A lot of our communities’ history has been actively stolen or removed and built those institutions and built those institutions that will house us romantically through this lens of extinct dying communities, cultures, but will not allow for our artists and makers today to exist in those spaces. So…
>> Tiffany Cain: Thank you both, all for that. I wonder if you could actually maybe take up this moment. This is a good moment for us to perhaps pivot to a more specific question about genre, and especially, you know, a lot of the response has been to figurative monuments, although of course things like the obelisk that Dell mentioned are also coming down.
But there’s a particular power to the genre of the figurative monument that I think has elicited quite the response lately from the public. And I wonder if you all have thoughts on the way that that genre and even the notion of monumentality and how we participate in public forms of commemoration and memorial‑making might shift moving forward.
What do you imagine other sort of, monumentality otherwise for the future. And just to hear a little bit about what you think would be a counterpoint or replacement for the kinds of monumentality that we have been thinking with and alongside of and living with and alongside now for so long?
>> LaVaughn Belle: Yeah, I, you know, I participated now in four or five different projects and having to think through monuments. Some had been realized in the public, and others have not been. And I don’t always go to the figurative. It really depends on the site and what’s maybe needed.
For example, there was a historic house in Stanton in Philadelphia, it was called this had been a museum for almost one hundred years. And there were three of us that had to think through monuments. And I was the only one who actually went with a figure, because this was no idea of what this person looked like. There was very little information about her.
But for me, I thought a figure was really important in that space because it had been a museum for over one hundred years. I mean everything from ‑‑ it was a completely preserved, very well‑preserved site.
And even in the architecture was hidden the relationship to African bodies to that space. You know, like, the way that even they would hide the ways that servants would come through the buildings and things like that. And so for me it was actually really important to put a figure in that space, as a disruptor to the space.
But I have also thought about monuments that didn’t necessarily need a figure. I have been working on a proposal for A Middle Passage monument that is actual a 20‑foot libation, thinking about the performance ritual of remembering. And sometimes I think an object could also ‑‑ so I think it really depends. But yes, there is definitely ‑‑ I think a little bit about and I’m curious what other think, this relationship between the figurative monument and empire, because I think a lot of these old monuments were really of kings and queens. And so I think that there is a challenge to that kind of monumentality because there needs to be a challenge to the concept of empire.
>> Dell Upton: I will say as someone who has for other reasons an interest in ancient Greece and Rome, and lately as I think about this argument over monuments, I think about the history of figurative monuments then, of people like emperors, and they are meant to essentially to deify those figures. They resemble their connection in one’s minds their figure to gods and goddesses. And I think that implication remains in the traditional figurative monument.
Monuments to individuals, the ways that they are presented, scaled, represented, their poses and so on are all essentially, they are all essentially idols. And I think ironically, somebody who is not a believer, I think about the Second Commandment and not making any graven images. And I’ve come to think recently that maybe there should not be figurative statues of individuals.
Because it removes their humanity and it prevents us from seeing them in their fullness. So that what happens is you present Washington or Jefferson for centuries and centuries as unblemished god, as soon as people realize they have very serious blemishes, then they really, the impulse is then to get rid of them all together which may be correct.
But, so I’m thinking that monuments should, if they are figurative, they shouldn’t be monuments of individuals. I’m thinking that there is a rule ‑‑ there’s a role for figurative sculpture. I think of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. The main memorial I think in my opinion is the greatest monument that’s been made in this country in the last fifty or sixty years with no exceptions.
But there are parts of it like the image of the young Black men’s arms coming out of the wall. I have forgotten the name of it. Those are kinds of figurative images that seem to me to be, to remain valid, because they are not asking us for uncritical admiration of a certain person. They are asking us to think about the kinds of issues that we are talking about today.
In general, though, I think that we would be, if we are going to rethink our civic monument landscape, it ought to be rethought in the light of ideas and values and become very insipid very quickly. But certainly not in the way in the sense of holding up flawed individuals whose flaws we will at one point or another begin to understand as serious ones.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I mean, am I still on mute? I find that really interesting. I mean, you know, for our project in Denmark, that’s part of the reason, the titling of the piece was very intentional by calling it “I am Queen Mary,” it was kind of, you know, it was thinking about all these other political movements in addition to the 1968 sanitation workers strike where they are handing, you know, holding up these placards saying “I am a man,” or thinking about the Cuban revolutionary statement (foreign language). Part of civil protests is the declaration of your presence and your humanity and that each one of us can step into that same role and what does that mean for people to say that? I am Queen Mary.
I am curious what other people think about, because I do think as you said that those kinds of figurative monuments are very connected to empire, and but I still am hesitant to say that they don’t have a place that, yeah, because I think especially as a counter to the devaluing of Black lives and Black bodies and Black heros, that I feel like we also respond in that way by constructing images for ourselves.
>> Dell Upton: Sure, sure. I like the ‑‑ your title, “I am” invites an engagement with the figure rather than simple passive admiration. And I think that makes it different from a typical figurative monuments honoring a person.
>> LaVaughn Belle: And trust me, that was intentional because, you know, we used our figures to create that work. And we got a lot of pushback especially in the community here in the Virgin Islands because, you know, we sing songs about Queen Mary. We have a highway named after her. It was seen as very audacious and almost blasphemous that we would dare to put our figure inside this tradition as we are saying that it becomes idolized. How dare you think you could be up there in this monument? And it was also kind of challenging that. Yeah, we all can be up here. Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that what we tell our children that you can be like these heros that we celebrate?
>> Dell Upton: Exactly.
>> LaVaughn Belle: Engaging these ideas that are problematic in monuments as well.
>> Tiffany Cain: That’s right. For audience members who may not know, correct me if I am wrong, but LaVaughn, the piece was basically scans of both you and others and sort of matched together with some very amazing digital technology from which you then printed the base and molded the overall statue.
>> LaVaughn Belle: The base is the corral stones imported from buildings here in the Virgin Islands that enslaved people used to form the foundations here. But yeah, so it’s although it looks like a very traditional monument in that way, it is also very high‑tech, yeah.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: And I will just say that I really appreciate what’s happening now, that people are that people are exploring other traditions of monumentality. They are asking questions, like, how have people of the global majority made permanent alterations to the land?
How have they made monuments that are less long lived than the monuments that we’ve come to know? What cues do we get from other histories? And that gets to this tension that we don’t always get to explore, which is that making monuments isn’t just a white practice. I think there is sort of an erasure that happening there too in terms of how we talk about the history of monuments.
But we’re all talking about post‑colonial societies. And often a very specific form of monumentality. And that very Western notion of monumentality is part of the basis of the racist valuation of societies and histories that make these types of awful commemorations possible in the first place.
So there’s all sorts of folding and collapsing that’s happening there that I think deserves to be unpacked and that I appreciate the type of attention that it’s getting right now. And I will also add that I think there’s an opening if we have a sort of renewed interest in community knowledge and the ways that it should inform good heritage work. So, you know, it will be interesting to see how the genre shifts as activists and organizers, for example, from BLM are engaged.
You know, I think of my work as a curator and what I think is emblematic of a movement might differ greatly from the perspectives of those people who actually shape it. You know, what I think is really important based on my expertise or knowledge could be completely different than, you know, an object that might otherwise seem mundane to me or somebody else.
But to an activist or organizer is actually imbued with all of this meaning. And so I mean, going back to the question about the figurative, so maybe in one community, you know, the form becomes more figurative as we see or at least briefly saw in Bristol. And in another, you might get something ‑‑ I don’t know, an abstract rendering of a tear gas canister, for instance.
You know, ultimately I think it all boils down to how we choose to remember. And in that process, we can’t ignore that these decisions don’t take place in a vacuum. You know, there are all of these political relationships at play as Dell mentioned. And those, they determine who gets to, who gets to choose what’s in public space and often the form as well.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I also want to ‑‑ I think a lot of my work is just thinking about the monuments that we live in already, like, there’s this amazing tree in Grove Place in Saint Croix. And just even the existence of that type of tree here reflects parts of African traditions of bringing these seeds, planting them here.
And in this same 1878 labor revolt that Queen Mary was one of the leaders in, there were about 15 women that were burnt at that tree. But that’s oral history. It isn’t something that is even written in most of our history books. It isn’t something that, you know, you wouldn’t need a figure for that. But when we see that tree, we know that story.
It’s another way of commemorating those women, and it’s a part of an oral history that in some ways also, it has monumentality to it in another way. Even or, like, oral songs, the fact that we all sing songs about, you know, Queen Mary one hundred and something years after.
I think that there’s other ways of memory‑making that are also quite monumental and in the physical form that we may also look to when we are thinking about other ways as you said how the genre might change. I feel like Nicholas might have something to say.
>> Nicholas Galanin: Sure. I think that there’s a few, so the actual, the act of removal is highly political and also a power ‑‑ a role of power, I suppose. So, so in this process of the colonization of our home lands here, everything was removed. All of our objects that are from monumental totemic works to the words and language, our language was removed, our children were removed from place and space.
Our rights to subsist and survive, our food sources, all of these things were removed. And so the conversation of removal right now is highly political and also a shift of power to community in a sense. In this case, not a negative one, I believe, when white supremacist monuments of false historical context, I suppose.
And there was one question I want to tie into this that someone asked about healing and the totemic work in our communities. In the ’60s in Juno, a community north, a village was purposefully burned down to remove the homes and the people and make way for a boat harbor. And recently I was head carver to design with five apprentices a 40‑foot totem that now stands to, you know, commemorate that story.
And it was a healing pole. But the healing is not actually just the pole standing there itself. The healing takes place through the training and practice of culture through continuum of five apprentices, the engagement of elders in sharing their stories in that space, and marking that land with what is now a monument, a totem pole, that does not erase that history.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I actually love that you’re really emphasizing that it’s not just about the object; that it’s about all the community engagement that happens in the creation of that object, or even the object itself.
>> Nicholas Galanin: And it really never fully is just about the object. I believe. You know, our totem poles fall back to Earth, and they go back to the soil and they give life to everything that’s there. And they come back through future generations through the knowledge that’s shared. So I tie that into your oral history and those things that are held in that space.
A big issue with a lot of these national monuments, I suppose, conversations that were not represented. And one side of the representation is the enemies of the community that slaughtered our women and children to claim that land, et cetera, in the making of America. Abraham Lincoln, he hung 38, the largest mass hanging of indigenous people, and he has a monument up.
So these are countless, like, oftentimes people of color or indigenous people at the other side of that conversation of whose hero is it?
>> Dell Upton: If I could, two points that came out of the last two speakers, as far as Abraham Lincoln goes, I think one of the sort of interesting/distressing aspects of the debate over individual monuments is who gets to decide whether this person was a good person or bad person? So many of the people who worry about taking down statues of people like Jefferson, well, he was, yes, he held slaves. That was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as the good that this person did for founding the nation. But the people who say that are not the people whose ancestors were enslaved, or treated in these ways; similarly with Abraham Lincoln and the story you can talking about Minnesota.
The other touches on what LaVaughn was just saying, and I think is a really important thing to think about when we think about the future of monumentalization. She talked about the tree. One of the reasons I started working on civil rights monuments was I was interested in the history of the movement. And when I went to places, particularly urban places where the famous events that we know of had taken place, in most cases those were erased and monuments were put in place like with your new pole in Juno. And it led me to think about to ask the question, how do we think about places where, in this case, horrible or inspiring things that happened, but there’s nothing about the place that would suggest that to you? How when momentous things happen in very ordinary places and once they have happened, the place goes back to being what it had been before, to all intents and purposes, as far as one can tell, how do we think about that connection between very momentous human history and very ordinary physical places?
>> Tiffany Cain: There’s definitely a sense that a monument is a specific place or thing that has been instructed. But of course we know that people have been constructing monumental landscapes through things like cultivation and other forms of landscape‑based monumentality for a long time as well, right.
So I love this idea that there’s such a wide breadth of methods and decisions we might make around how we choose to commemorate that need not reflect what we’ve come to understand as the monumental genre as a sort of built heritage. There’s a wide open swath of opportunity there for us.
But I do want to raise one question here that I think we have been sort of talking around, and I would like to push you all to give your thoughts on it a little bit more directly because it’s coming up a lot in our Q&A, which is okay, if we accept that certain monuments ought to be remove, where do we remove them to? Or what happens with them? What do we do with them?
And is complete destruction an option? And what will it take for to us accept that as a potential moving forward? So I would like to put that on the table to just get a little more direct feedback on the question of what we do post‑removal.
>> LaVaughn Belle: Yeah, it’s very controversial. So I’m hesitant, because I think it would also depend on what the monument is and the community that it’s in, the resources that they have. I mean, I think in some communities it would seem egregious to spend a bunch of money to store, house these monuments when that money could be used for something else.
But I’m also open to burying them. I’m open to that, too. I think it depends. I think it could be an interesting gesture to find another symbolic gesture of ways to handling them. I love the idea of throwing some of them in the ocean. I think it was interesting that resources were spent go fetch ‑‑ I found that wild. So I think it depends on the monument.
>> Dell Upton: And I like the person who altered the Google maps and put it in the middle of the bay.
>> LaVaughn Belle: Yeah.
>> Dell Upton: Well, I would say also that it depends on the monument. If you think about the confederate monuments, they are basically mass‑produced. There are, no one could possibly argue that they have any aesthetic value. They could easily be destroyed or a thing I’ve always thought of is to take someplace like in southeast Carolina where there’s a new reconstruction historic park and liking them all up as a visual reminder of since these are all supposed to be ordinary soldiers, how much destruction, how much lives were lost for this stupid idea. It’s also the case that people who made these monuments didn’t think of them as anything out of the ordinary. The Calhoun monument came up in a way that it been vandalized by African‑American neighbors. It ended up being replaced. And when the ladies who erected the monument couldn’t find anybody to buy it, they sold it for scrap. So the idea of using it, using some of them as art materials for people, great idea. Make a giant dust bin of history and throw them in that. It’s a great idea.
>> Nicholas Galanin: Can I add to this conversation? I think if we are spending more time on what to do with these ‑‑ more time on what to do with these monuments and less time on what we are going to do for systemic change in the communities that are deeply affected by the political social structure that often is vested in the oppression of said communities, I think we are spending too much time in a direction of a conversation. Yes, there’s whole community of creative artists, et cetera, that could use a material, use the context, recontextualize, et cetera, all of these things.
But the priority to me seems to me to be systematic inside of these nations and communities, and until we can get to that, it seems like we are running in circles with what are we going to do with said object.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I think it’s also this question that does art always have to be permanent? You know, it’s central to this preservation question. And I think for me, you know, we have this issue a lot with murals that come up. Is that all of the sudden, people feel like a mural has to be permanent. That it has to be preserved forever and ever. And I don’t see murals as a permanent type of art form.
And so I think the question is, can we begin to think about these monuments, that they don’t actually need to be permanent and they actually can be destroyed. That they can be replaced. I think that’s the shift and what does that mean when we are saying that? But I think that’s maybe part of the question as well.
>> Nicholas Galanin: And what is permanent?
>> LaVaughn Belle: Yeah.
>> Nicholas Galanin: Our currency is not permanent. If you go back in history, you will see that all of these things change, shift, and move. And I think that permanence needs to be an idea of passing on and leaving community with something greater than what we have been handed or given. And that needs to be what is something that we want to create permanence of, I suppose, so contribution.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I mean I agree that the systemic issue is primary, but if this process is or can be seen as a type of initiation, you know, then, of course, I agree with what everyone is saying. There’s no single response that will work everywhere. I think that the process of removal needs to be coupled with truth‑telling and a real reckoning with the past.
And in a way that allows harmed communities to be at the center of the process of deciding how to move forward. I also think we need to talk about what other monuments there are. There’s still violence that is being perpetrated against Black monuments and memorials, against Brown monuments and memorials. We saw this last summer in the fall again with the bullet‑ridden Emmett Till marker sign in Mississippi.
We saw it twice in less than two years with the statue of John Brown in Kansas City. And again earlier this month there was the Frederick Douglass statue that was chopped down in Rochester. So to me, as we’re thinking about a new framework for monumentality, I think we need to not think about this as an either/or. Do they come down? Do they not?
I think it’s instead welcoming the options of destroying, of restoring, and of retelling or, you know, sort of unearthing these histories.
>> Tiffany Cain: So there’s an adage that all monuments are or all memorials are war memorials. We have a couple of questions here coming up in Q&A about how we differentiate between systemic forms of violence and commemoration of war, and what that looks like, and for whom. And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about that. Because there’s a slippery overlap between commemorating the survival of certain violences, but also commemorating sanctioned or legitimated violence through things like war memorials. So what do we do with that as a specific genre and how do we begin to tease apart the conversation about larger issues of violence that permeate our societies broadly, and then the specificities of war in particular, and how those things might become complicated when we think about the things that we traditionally begin to memorialize, which I think if I could might get us to another conversation that’s also coming up in Q&A right now about whether or not there are arenas where particular kinds of monuments are appropriate or permissible in ways that they may not be in other spaces. So I’m thinking here maybe of the argument that monuments to confederate soldiers which are in cemeteries ought to be allowed to stay there.
But those that are in public spaces ought not. So I just want to put those couple of things on the table for our conversation.
>> Dell Upton: Well, one thing to say about the monuments in cemeteries as several historians have demonstrated, they were put in cemeteries as a kind of disguise for their real meanings. In the years immediately after the Civil War when the federal government exerted somewhat more control over the south than it did after, it wouldn’t tolerate open celebration of the confederacy.
These were put up as ostensibly as monuments of mourning for the dead. But they were widely understood to be nevertheless to be statements of continuing allegiance. And after the end of Reconstruction, then they could come into civic spaces where they always wanted to be in any event.
So I would think that the real distinction would be between monuments that stand in civic spaces that are maintained and paid for by the public in ostensibly represents civic values, and monuments that however represent reprehensible are on private land where everyone understands that they are not a statement of genuine values, but that they are the particular viewpoints of the owners of the land.
And in the case of some of the confederate monuments, one in Tallahassee comes to mind. After 2017 after Charlottesville, some of the usually the UDC, the original donors of the monuments voluntarily took them down and moved them to their own places. So from the point of view of free speech, I suppose, you know, they have a right to that sentiment, but they don’t have a right for it to be supported by the public or offered to the public as something admirable.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I think your comment speaks a lot to how monuments actually come up in the public space. And I think there are so many ways and the ways and how they come up to the public space also depends on the meaning that they are going to take. You know, is it a really big difference from a monument that is being sponsored by a state arts commission that goes through an open process where people get to comment, than a monument that an artist privately puts up in the public space or, you know, wealthy people are able to put something up on their private land but still in the public space. All of those things, and I don’t actually ‑‑ I don’t know if the general public sees the difference when they think about this idea of civic imagination, if they understand that there’s contending and interest in how these things arrive to the public space. Even for our project, I am Queen Mary, that is an artist‑led project that we raised the money ourselves. But there is a deep pain that the reason that the project, it was supposed to be two monuments. The reason it’s in Denmark was because Denmark was the colonizing money that had a lot of money and we were able to get the money there. And people ask me all the time in the Virgin Islands where is ours?
And, you know, it’s also about funds and money and power. And that part of the monument process I don’t think, I don’t think people see the difference when they see it in the landscape, but it is a huge difference who is paying for the monument and who has the power.
>> Nicholas Galanin: And where did they take that power or that resource from to get the power? Oftentimes I think it’s a huge back history of the conversation, too, I think.
>> LaVaughn Belle: But I don’t necessarily mean ‑‑ I just am having a hard time wrapping my head around that question about The Civil War monuments. I’m not sure. I don’t know maybe if others felt like I didn’t quite understand what the question was trying to ask. Or what was it trying to unpack? I mean, I think it was maybe trying to comment on this difference between trying to mourn the dead and trying to mourn people who we see as doing their civic duty by defending our nation.
And then also these other war memorials that are celebrating that we can understand that the people that they are celebrating also were problematic. And I guess there is, like, how do you unpack those two things? I guess that’s what the question was asking, maybe.
>> Tiffany Cain: I think absolutely. I think absolutely. It’s really about, how do we begin to disentangle our desires to honor certain people in our past or the dead in general, and how do we also recognize what they were participating in, for instance, may have been wrong or misguided.
And that comes up especially I think with the issue of war memorials in particular. Right. And what do we do with war memorials? And there may be a more fundamental question there. Is there a difference between memorial and monument? What are we really talking about in these spaces? I think what Dell brought up earlier about the connection between a monument and empire, maybe offers an interesting lens there.
But I think some of the questions that are being raised in the Q&A right now are really trying to get us to disentangle what’s going on with the space of war memorial in particular, because that is a different understanding of violence than maybe the way that we have been talking about violence also broadly in this conversation. And but it’s sort of central to a large portion of what the conversation has been circulating around in terms of monuments and memorials at the global scale in ways that go beyond our localized experience, perhaps here in the United States.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I mean when I think for example the Vietnam War memorial, it’s very much thinking about how do we commemorate and honor the people who participated in what was seen as their civic duty of defending national interests? But I think anyone who understands the Vietnam War also would say there’s also something quite problematic in the celebration of empire in that way.
How do we begin to disentangle that? I don’t know. I mean, there still seems to be this impulse to want to honor war, and maybe the question is, is that something that we should be doing? I think that’s where the discomfort, because you are conflating all these issues. And maybe the question is, should we continue to have war memorials? Yeah.
>> Dell Upton: Well, I think that’s a really key question, because I think war memorials in many ways really cloud this discussion. And confederate memorials, Civil War memorials in general are the origin of that. Kirk Savage wrote about that, about the ship from war memorials they depicted generals and admirals to so onto war memorials that depicted the so‑called common soldier.
And as he discusses it, what that does is shift from the issues involved in the war to an abstract notion of duty. These people were doing their duty. What were they doing their duty to? Military served the state. They served the purposes of the state, so whether you are fighting the civil war or the Vietnam War, you are doing it because the state wants you to do it.
Now, and one of the defenses that are often made against ‑‑ made of confederate monuments is they are war memorials. These are soldiers and we need to honor them. But soldiers in the service of what? I often kind of ask people to think about a sliding scale and at what end they might put soldiers who fought in the American revolution, on the other end we might put the 9/11 hijackers and then move.
So moving in maybe a little British soldiers who fought in the American Revolution, moving in this end a little bit, what, Italian soldiers who fought in World War II. And keep moving these ends until you get to a line between things you would accept and things you wouldn’t accept. What side do you put memorials on? I would put them on the negative side.[ ]
But many people thinking in terms of that abstraction of duty which really obscures the modes of things like the Vietnam War would put them on the positive side because they were soldiers and you can’t question soldiers doing their duty.
>> LaVaughn Belle: But yet at this moment we question police officers, I don’t mean like they are not really police officers, but we question police officers in the sense of soldiers doing their duty. So I think when you think about it in that context as well, if we can understand that this aspect of the police that are deeply problematic, then we need to kind of use that same lens.
>> Dell Upton: Yeah. Well, I think that maybe the analogy to that would be war dreams, even soldiers are not supposed to do certain things.
>> LaVaughn Belle: Yeah.
>> Dell Upton: And I would think you could put police murders and so on as an analogous kind of thing, that they are not, whatever their duties are, they are not exempt from the bounds of the law, even though they often act as though they are. And they are allowed to act as though they are.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: Yeah. This one is a hard one for me, because I feel like part of what I’m left sitting with is, I mean, I think it’s a political question. But it’s a personal question. Are there righteous forms of violence? And if there are, then how do we choose to commemorate them? You know, and that’s a really tough one to unpack. So I’m still sitting with that question.
I don’t want to shift the discussion, but part of the question also seemed to suggest what is the place for these objects? And of course being somewhat situated in a museum, there’s a lot of conversation going on about should museums be the space? And, you know, I’m happy to pick up on that. I don’t know if that’s where folks wants to take the discussion.
>> Nicholas Galanin: If the museums were the space, these said museums should also make it, implement into their protocol that when they bring this whatever monument in, they contextualize it truthfully, but they also bring in artists from the community who are doing things now as well. Oftentimes those same artists are not engaged, allowed to enter these institutions or these spaces. So it wouldn’t, I would suggest not just the awful monument or the awful statue enter whatever space, but to positively engage with living community that happening right now in those spaces, and implement and uphold those voices.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I agree 100 percent. I think or at least as someone who works in museums, this has been the million dollar question lately. And I should say there isn’t a robust literature on taking in of monuments. And from the public history side, doing so doesn’t offer a clear solution to the issue of preservation, and it certainly doesn’t address the root causes, the systemic causes we’ve talked about. Go ahead.
>> Nicholas Galanin: Go ahead. Let it be a Trojan horse of letting our communities infiltrate these spaces with the voices and the artists and the makers and the curators and the directors and, you know, everything else has to flood in with it into an institution like that.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I agree. I think we have to be really particular, though, because many of the calls for putting monuments inside museums come from people outside our field, oftentimes more traditional academics and folks who, unlike artists like yourself, aren’t demonstrating a full understanding, that not all museums are the same. So they aren’t thinking about how a monument would be read differently in a general history museum like my own for instance, than it would be in an art museum versus a Black history museum, for instance.
And I think that it’s telling that Black owned museums haven’t actually rushed to take these monuments in and if they did, it would have a dramatically different reading. The work do I is all about community engagement. I believe that has to be central and particularly if you are bringing in an opposite as freighted as a con federate monument, for instance.
And that artists are an important part of that conversation and they also offer a different type of ‑‑ your work offers a different time of engagement you can get at Toni Morrison these silences and gaps that I as an historian can’t always get at with the historical narrative alone. But when we are talking about considering confederate monuments in museums, there’s a whole host of issues to unpack.
And practitioners are really divided on it. And I think not for reasons that many people outside of our profession always realize. So you have to think about the collection’s management perspective which LaVaughn alluded to earlier. Does it make sense to extend resources to preserve a two or sometimes three‑ton object? And if I’m underresourced already which most museums around the country are, do I wants to reinforce my floor when I could do other things to uplift and preserve the history of people of color? I think someone had brought up I believe it was in the chat about the plinths. So you have to think about the impact of curatorial decisions and display. Do you keep the plinth? Do you not? Without the plinth you could end up having it look like a simple statue of a nameless man. And then the power might be stripped away.
But then there’s also the fear that in a museum, the impressive and intimidating infrastructure of a monument might be changed, that it could somehow be made more palatable or even worse, you know, you have this massive object that’s almost uninterpretable and reinforces white supremacy.
So, you know, there are so many issues. There’s the fact that Black life is also written out of the interpretation, often. But I think at the end of the day, museums really just have a role and an obligation to truth telling and research. And I should say these are my views, not the views of my institution. But not everything needs to be preserved. You know?
Museums are uniquely positioned to tell stories. If we do it right with communities and artists, it can be done well. But it has to be done like Dell was saying with the right object. And the museum needs to use it effectively. They need to be able to, you know, know that it will go on display and have appropriate interpretation. And those are the issues that are just harder to guarantee.
>> LaVaughn Belle: I think what you are saying is so super‑important. I live in a place where in the Caribbean we have all of these plantation great houses that have been restored. And when you go on these same plantations and where you look for where the enslaved people live, you see there’s bush growing through it.
There’s always this question of what do we think is valuable enough to be preserved? And so this question around, what are we going to do with these monuments, to me it’s still an extension of this conversation that we think these things are still valuable enough to be preserved. And that is the question. Maybe they are not.
You know? Burial is still an option.
>> Nicholas Galanin: I would also like to comment on that. I by no means think that museums are great homes for these statues or monuments. I’m just commenting. If that is the case, in our community there is a statue that recently has been removed by the community and placed into a museum. And I think that some of the history of doing so it becomes much harder for community access to that statue or monument, whether it means tearing it down or you know, applying some paint, whatever it is, to said monument or statue once it enters that space of a museum, it becomes very difficult for any of that type of engagement. And then also I would like to note that just because something’s in a museum does not mean that it needs to be ever on display or exhibit. Oftentimes.
>> Nicholas Galanin: A lot of our objects that have been removed or stolen from our community never see the light of day, and for me or anybody else from our community or culture to visit them, we have to go to some warehouse and, you know, e‑mail weeks in advance, and then we go down into these dusty basements and get to spend time with our ancestors’ objects, our cultural objects.
So, yeah, there’s a lot of possibilities there.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I’m probably going to get myself into trouble here. But something you said really made me think of, you know, a potential opportunity or just a different way of thinking about things. So for my curatorial perspective, I actually like the idea of taking in defaced or destroyed monuments if you are going to do it. If you are going to do it to take in something that is already marked by the visible evidence of contestation.
So you don’t have to question it as much. If it will be read through this lens of white supremacy. And I just couldn’t help but think about your role and LaVaughn’s role as artists and, you know, the ways that there could just be so many interesting multimedia ways of engaging with these monuments actively, especially if they are already destroyed.
And, you know, it’s a controversial thing to suggest, certainly coming out of the heritage profession. But, you know, there are a range of ways that we can begin to think creatively, whether it’s destruction, whether it’s burial, whether it’s preservation or something that looks like something we haven’t imagined before.
>> Tiffany Cain: I’m sorry. Nick. I was going to say someone threw out the idea of a virtual museum which I think is an interesting provocation right now considering how much of our lives have gone digital with creating a virtual archive, perhaps. That might be an opportunity as well.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: Well, virtual archives are great ways of engaging communities, and also trying to work through some of the issues that Nicholas had mentioned with communities being distanced from their objects, many of which have been stolen, and that have been assigned meaning without their input.
And so I think that’s, you know, it’s an interesting alternative. And there are models that are being experimented with already.
>> Dell Upton: The only thing I would say about that is part of the force of a monument is its scale and its physicality and what it’s like to stand next to a fifty‑foot‑tall image, and seeing it on the small screen is not the same thing. And I would also in regard to what you are saying about vandalized monuments, I think some of them should stay in place.
I would love to see Robert E. Lee in Richmond stay in place and as he is now, because if you are going to talk about monuments as history which I think is wrong, history is going on in that monument. If you are going to talk about monuments as part of a landscape, here are these changes made to a monument in the middle of what was intended and still is an upper crust white neighborhood. So leaving some of those things where they are is a record of what’s been happening.
>> Nicholas Galanin: I think some of the success in shadow on the land burial excavation piece at the Sydney Biennial is that it allows for this conversation to exist without the actual monument in place. It’s literally removed from the ‑‑ it’s not there. It’s not in that space. And it shows to me that we can have meaningful dialogue and conversation about all of these things without that, without that structure, that figure, that sculpture in that space, taking up space, because it has become oftentimes become oftentimes taking up valuable space or voice or narrative redrawing lines through history, in a sense.[ ]
>> Dell Upton: Nicholas, could I ask you, is that work on the exact site where the monument was?
>> Dell Upton: No, it’s not. It’s on Cockatoo island which I think is a fitting space for it. Originally the dialogue was to create the work with the shadow, but the municipality of the city, it became really difficult to realize that. And I think that it’s better without the monument there to be honest. It allows for that visual to happen.
>> Tiffany Cain: So as we are winding down, we have about ten minutes left and I have to apologize. We have to cut us right off at 6:00 and I know how many questions there are still rolling in. So we will do what we can as a panel to address some of those in the aftermath.
But I want to speak a little bit about a couple of other themes that are coming through that might be a good place to close on. So we have been talking I think all of you have had interesting contributions in terms of what we might be doing with monuments and the monumental as a mode of repair.
And the term healing has come up. But some of the questions around the practicalities of how we begin to do that work of repair through engagement with heritage work through engagement with monumental practice is something I think maybe we could speak a little bit more directly to in closing.
And also the question, then, of the theme of monuments and memorials moving forward. So a couple of questions that are in the Q&A right now deal with whether or not what we do should be memorializing the suffering of past violences and past crimes, for instance, or the questions of past successes and joys and moments where Black life, indigenous life, otherwise life is really highlighted and brought to the fore in a space where it’s not normally seen.
And so I thought that this could be something we might close with. So is the potential here moving forward? What would you like to see happen? And what does repair look like as a practice of heritage‑making going forward?
>> LaVaughn Belle: I think for myself I would like to see all of it, all kinds of combinations of it. As an artist who works in public art, it’s exciting to, a lot of times first you are responding to what communities are asking you to do. It’s very rare in the way that I am Queen Mary happened where we are kind of pushing our agenda into the public space, many times it’s communities that are asking artists this is what we want to commemorate.
So I think it’s a question of what communities will begin to also start to think through that they want to commemorate. But I was surprised it didn’t come up in the conversation yet, but for example when the Colston statue came down in Bristol and there was the Mark Quinn statue that came up, that raised a lot of the questions and controversy over who gets to put these sculptures up, who ‑‑ the process, also, I think was problematic for some people, because there wasn’t any public engagement or dialogue or conversation. It was really someone and who that person was also made a big difference. So I think all of those things will come to the forefront when we are thinking about moving forward in terms of monuments, both, you know, what communities want, who the artists are, the process, you know, whether it’s open or closed.
Hopefully it’s open. And when I say “open,” I don’t mean necessarily communication are together designing things. Because I do think artists have a very particular role. But the dialogue is just as important as Nicholas mentioned and others have mentioned. It’s just as important if not more than the actual object.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I completely agree. So I think that it should take all different types of forms, and that community, I mean, each community’s experience will be different. And what they want and the needs of that community, the harms that they endured will be different. And so we have to expect that, you know, that what’s created will look different in different places. It needs to.
And it needs to be informed by those people who have been most impacted. One thing that I do want to say on the topic of repair is, so the notion of repair is about redressing a harm, right. Like, that is the demand. I think people in our field especially like to run to the notion of healing and reconciliation.
And that is not what repair work demands. You know, it’s truth and reconciliation. Those things are sequential, and so I think that when you think about accountability and repair work, you can’t demand healing on the other end. You should ask questions like have you been angry long enough?
So I just want to caution people to the move to immediately say by redressing, we will be reaching some sort of reconciliation.
>> Nicholas Galanin: And then with reconciliation, restitution, and in brings us to conversations of land acknowledgement versus land back. Like, there’s two very different conversations with very different outcomes. One is acknowledging and one is action. Can you envision what that might look like, land back or indigenous peoples? Can you envision what America’s monuments might look like with a reality of land back for indigenous peoples in the U.S.?
>> LaVaughn Belle: I have to just say that even in this conversation it was one of the first times that I believe maybe it was even before when we were prepping, you know, maybe I think it was you, Tiffany, when you introduced yourself as being on the land of particular indigenous peoples. Like, that for me was such a shift just even that acknowledgement.
Like, we call this place this, but this is what it really is. And yeah, I just, I want to thank you guys, because that definitely was, like, a shift for me, and I definitely appreciate that.
>> Tsione Wolde‑Michael: I spent earlier today talking about land acknowledgements. And I think it’s a shift that’s an initiation just like we were talking about with this conversation around monuments versus what are really the systemic issues at play. And so, you know, I’m not indigenous, but if my land were stolen and people were on it and acknowledging that they were on it, but not talking about ending settler colonialism, I would be upset.
It would feel like a slap in the face, too. Have you spent time talking to indigenous communities about how they feel about land acknowledgement? I think those are the types of questions that goes back to talking, really doing the community engagement work to understand how people are feeling and how they understand their history.
>> Dell Upton: The question Nicholas asked about implications, I think is a really major one. And I thoughts about that when I read about the Supreme Court decision last week or the week before saying that most of Oklahoma still belonged to indigenous people. What does that mean? How will that play out? What will ‑‑ will that simply be a symbolic acknowledgement, or will something actually happen?
And I haven’t seen anybody, anything that I’ve read where anyone asks those kinds of questions. They see the decision as a kind of acknowledgement rather than as kind of any sort of step toward restitution.
>> LaVaughn Belle: And on the other end for our sculpture in Denmark, you know, there’s a hesitancy on our end as we are trying to get the sculpture institutionalized, that people will see that as a form of restitution. You know, it’s just, like, yes, that’s wonderful that we are going to be able to make the sculpture permanent and that institutions will embrace it.
But that is not the end‑all and be all. You know, I think that’s also some people feel that monuments can act as that. Like, let’s just put up some sculptures of some Black stuff and some indigenous stuff and we have tied that part off. I mean, I think, you know, it’s one step in the journey to what equity and justice will look like.
>> Dell Upton: A good practical example of that, when South Carolina was planning its African‑American history monument which was placed on the state capital full of confederate monuments, they held hearings and people at the hearings said is this the only one we are going to get? Does everything have to be done by this monument? And the members of the committee yeah, probably.
So you ended up with a monument that had to somehow say everything about the African‑American experience in South Carolina. Meanwhile you had monuments to every aspect of the confederacy scattered around the rest of the ground. So that idea that a monument takes care of everything is very pernicious, but very widespread one.[ ]
>> Tiffany Cain: I think that’s a great place to close our conversation today. And a reminder, a welcome reminder that this is as one just said an initiation. This conversation is the beginning, hopefully of many conversations but also many actions moving forward. And I would like to thank you all for engaging in this discussion today and the real work you are doing in community and in shifting the way that we think about history and the ways that we all are engaging in this present moment.
So thank you all very much, and we encourage the audience to look out for a follow‑up e‑mail, there will be a video recording of today’s discussion as well as further readings. And hopefully some announcements will be coming out soon about, indeed, more discussions down the line and more calls to action. So thank you, everyone, and have a wonderful evening or day or morning, wherever you are in the world.
>> Nicholas Galanin: Thank you.
>> Tiffany Cain: Bye.
>> Dell Upton: Thanks. That was a wonderful conversation.
We’re glad you enjoyed the article! Want to republish it?
This article is currently copyrighted to SAPIENS and the author. But, we love to spread anthropology around the internet and beyond. Please send your republication request via email to editor•sapiens.org.
Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.
We’re glad you enjoyed the article! Want to republish it?
This article is currently copyrighted to SAPIENS and the author. But, we love to spread anthropology around the internet and beyond. Please send your republication request via email to editor•sapiens.org.
Accompanying photos are not included in any republishing agreement; requests to republish photos must be made directly to the copyright holder.