But the Mellon Foundation, this country’s largest philanthropic donor to the arts and humanities, brings serious institutional and intellectual heft to an urgent priority: how to rid this country of its many toxic memorials while teaching history in public that is accurate, inclusive and inspiring. The Monuments Project will include funding for new memorials and for the removal or recontextualization of existing ones. Among the first efforts is one that may be the most significant, a $4 million grant to the Philadelphia-based public art and research group Monument Lab, to create an audit of the country’s existing monuments and memorials.
If done comprehensively and accurately, that survey could help steer new conversations about how monuments and memorials have been used to forge public opinion and ideology. The audit will begin with aggregating existing surveys of memorials and monuments but will grow to include richer, more sociological information.
“We also want to have the qualitative,” says Elizabeth Alexander, president of the foundation. “What does it mean to go into communities, and talk to them about who is important and what is important?” So, the survey won’t be just a travel-guide-style compendium, but could also include anecdotal and psychological detail. For example, what is it like to live in a largely African American community yet be surrounded by a commemorative landscape that exalts the old Confederacy?
Alexander says the idea for the project has been at least five years in the making, and the perceived need for the work was sharpened by the events in Charlottesville in 2017, when white supremacists gathered to show support for keeping a city memorial to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. But while the Black Lives Matter protests of the past summer, which led to prominent Confederate memorials being removed in cities across the country, helped focus public attention on the subject, the Monuments Project isn’t limited to addressing debates over memorials to the Confederacy.
“This is not a Confederate monuments project; it is a monuments project,” says Alexander. That means addressing the larger issue of what values and ideas about identity are embedded in this country’s public architecture of history and memory. What is preserved, what is forgotten and what is suppressed?
“Our commemorative landscape is wildly lopsided when it comes to which stories are told and which values are exalted,” says Alexander. And it is relatively monolithic about how those stories and values are promoted — usually with representational statuary and traditional architectural forms, placed in the public square. Alexander’s understanding of the commemorative landscape embraces more than just traditional memorialization, including broader ideas about storytelling and narrative.
I asked Paul Farber, director of Monument Lab, about what kinds of questions the monument audit might answer. For example, if someone wanted to know how many markers devoted to Christopher Columbus were created between 1920 and 1930, where they were erected and what was the percentage of Italian Americans in the communities that created them, would that data be available? The project is still evolving, but he said yes, that should be exactly the sort of information it generates.
“The key for us is putting different kinds of history and knowledge about monuments together,” he said.
Given the extent to which monuments have become a flash point for anti-racist protest and backlash efforts — such as President Trump’s “1776 Commission,” which is meant to create a “pro-American curriculum” — it is surprising how little we understand about them, and how they operate. Not only do we currently lack a comprehensive guide to the larger commemorative landscape, but there also is little agreement about how best to make them. Should the process for new memorials and monuments be grass-roots, and democratic with a small “d,” rising organically within communities? Or should it resemble the process for creating memorials in Washington, a broadly political procedure with layers of oversight and editing?
There’s no easy answer, because both approaches can disenfranchise substantial parts of the community. The South is full of communities that feel their memorials to Lee were created through legitimate, democratic process and reflect the authentic feelings of the community — even when those communities include people of color who were excluded from the process and directly targeted by the not-so-subtle subtext of the memorial. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine that the best new memorial created in a generation — the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., dedicated to victims of lynching — could have been created through a broadly political process, especially in a deeply conservative state with an unresolved history of racism.
The Monuments Project will also have to grapple with a hard reality: that some portion of the population will never yield in its fidelity to a racist history, riddled with errors of historical omission and overt white supremacy. Monuments and memorials, because they are placed in public and make statements about what we value as a people, have become perhaps the most animating sites of tribalism in the country today. Some families argue over food, or religion or politics. We argue over monuments and memorials, because they seem to encompass so much of what we are, and how we think about ourselves.
And until White people can embrace, as heroes and exemplars of public life, people who look different from them, our memorial landscape will continue to be lopsided.
Alexander is well aware of that. We must, she says, learn “to understand that more than one story can be true at the same time. It doesn’t diminish the pride one might feel to say that our history and culture should be available for everybody. But for people who cling to an idea of exalting those who endorsed and enacted violence against others, I say, go do your work. I can’t fix that.”