On March 28th, 2016 I had the privilege of participating in AASLH’s webinar, “Grappling with Confederate Monuments and Iconography”, and I wanted to share my opinion on how these monuments should factor into our current cultural landscape.
I would like to begin by saying I agree largely with one of the speakers on the webinar, that it is ultimately up to local communities to decide the fate of their monuments.
However, I think that public historians should play a vital role in this process.
The first step of any debate is to understand why such a monument would exist in the first place, to help the public understand where it came from. To assist with this, interpretive signage would be a good start, to help explain the history of the lost cause and the history of the statue/monument. Explaining the culture that created a monument reduces its capacity to memorialize. It becomes a relic of a different time period.
I believe a good example of using past cultural bias to interpret the present can come from the plaques at the Bear River Massacre site, a situation I read about during my first year of graduate school. There are two plaques at the site (with a future one planned), with the most controversial being the one placed in 1932 by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers. The plaque refers to the massacre as a “battle”, against hostile Shoshone Indians. The reality of the massacre is that it was a US Army attack on a Shoshone camp, and around 300 men, women, and children were killed. The Shoshone tribe plans to erect their own monument commemorating the dead.
So what should happen to the existing monument? As a piece of history, it serves more as an artifact to its own time. As an actual memorial, it doesn’t have much merit. But I think it might be important to keep it there, to demonstrate where we have come from. Perhaps, move it to a less prominent position within the park, but I believe that throwing it away damages our understanding of the past (not of the massacre itself, but how Americans have related to American Indians).
I have seen it brought up a few times during this debate, about other societies tearing down statues, with particular references made to the destruction of the George III statue during the American Revolution and the removal of the Saddam Hussein Statue during the Iraq War. I am not sure these accurately represent
This brings me to my hometown’s own Confederate Monument. A great history of the monument can be found here . As far as I know, it has generated no controversy, but that might be because of its location. While once prominently in downtown, it has since been moved to the outskirts of town to make way for development in the later part of the 20th century. Perhaps one day the innumerable Confederate monuments will occupy a space similar to Hungary’s Memento Park. A place dedicated to the toppled statues of Hungary’s communist past.
Perhaps this is the answer. Move them out of the way, but let them tell the story of the society that produced them. The question is clearly a complex one, and as mentioned earlier the answer should ultimately come from the local level. I do think it is important for historians to be involved at each level, so that the public has an accurate accounting of our history.