Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Are Museums the Rightful Home for Confederate Monuments?

In a chapter titled “Capture the Flag: the struggle over representation and identity,” CFM’s TrendsWatch 2016 explored the growing pressure for museums to play a role in the detoxification of various symbols of oppression.” The report called on museums to “decide whether and how to play a role in decommissioning or relocating culturally explosive icons in their states/cities/communities. Today on the blog Janeen Bryant, Benjamin Filene, Louis Nelson, Jennifer Scott, and Suzanne Seriff preview a session at the 2018 AAM annual meeting that shares stories of how various museums are rising to this challenge.

In the wake of the Charlottesville riots last summer, newspaper headlines throughout the nation were calling for the removal of Confederate war monuments from the American public sphere—and their “safe housing” in museums. “What to do with Confederate monuments? Put them in museums as examples of ugly history, not civic pride,” read an LA Times headline days after the riots. “Confederate Monuments Belong in Museums, Not Public Squares” stated a Weekly Standard headline on Aug. 20th, 2017. “We Need to Move, Not Destroy, Confederate Monuments,” was the heading for a thoughtful article by NYTimes writer Holland Cotter, from that same day.

In the subsequent months, dozens of Confederate monuments across the nation have, in fact, been “removed” or toppled, and many have made their way to the “cold storage” of museum collections spaces, or, in some cases, premiered in new exhibitions on the museum’s main gallery floors.

On May 19, 2017, the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans
On May 19, 2017, the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans

But for those of us who actually work in and interpret museums, the issue of our institutions’ rightful role in this debate does not seem to be either straightforward or obvious. Are museums, in fact, the appropriate place for storing these gigantic homages—not even to the Civil War itself—but to the Jim Crow movements that fueled their commissioning and erection on state capitol grounds, university commons, city parks, and other places of power in the early decades of the 20th century? And if so, what does that say about the popularly understood notion of museums as giant warehouses to conveniently store/hide/put things away that we don’t want to deal with?

Some of us would argue that the “put them in a museum” response to Confederate memorials reflects a misunderstanding of what museums are for—and an effort to sidestep conversations that we really need to have.

More and more, [museums] aim to surface issues, not hide them—to be places where communities come together to discuss and wrestle with contemporary questions.

Yes, museums do collect things—savory and unsavory—and, yes, they often put things away and preserve them for a very long time. But 21st century museums are striving hard to expand their reach, shift their focus and repair their popular perception as public warehouses primarily in the cold storage business for art and artifacts. More and more, we aim to surface issues, not hide them—to be places where communities come together to discuss and wrestle with contemporary questions.

A simple label is not enough. In displaying statues, museums will need to be prepared to contextualize them visually and dramatically, to represent the layers of their history—from the story of their creation to the story of them being taken down and collected.

The obvious retort might be, “Well then just put them in context.” And by doing so, fulfill the mission of many contemporary museums to serve as sites of civic engagement nimbly poised to investigate, convene, and discuss the most contested issues of the day. Yet putting monuments in context is anything but a simple, declarative act: power dynamics come into play. First, museums are physical spaces that convey authority. As well, statues remain powerful—and physically imposing—visual forms that will keep speaking even when they are in new settings. And, too, they can and certainly will shape social experiences in ways that curators may not be able to anticipate. A simple label is not enough. In displaying statues, museums will need to be prepared to contextualize them visually and dramatically, to represent the layers of their history—from the story of their creation to the story of them being taken down and collected.

This is exactly the approach taken by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas campus when it agreed to house the 8 ½-foot-tall, 2,000-pound statue of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, that was removed from the campus’ South Mall in 2015. The decision to transfer the statue to the history center, rather than store or destroy it, was not without controversy, but represented one possible solution to the debates roiling the nation at the time over what to do with the Confederate statues, according to the center’s executive director, Don Carleton in a 2017 article from USA today headlined, “When a bronze Confederate needed to retire, University of Texas found a home.” “I think this is the answer,” Carleton said. “They are pieces of art; destroying that is like burning books. They need to be preserved and they belong in museums.” The point is, he quickly added, “we will not be putting him in our building as some sort of shrine to Jefferson Davis, but as an educational experience and point of discussion.”  Using old letters, diary entries, and original sketches, the permanent exhibit, titled, “From Commemoration to Education,” tells the story of how the statue came to be and why it was later removed from its original spot on UT campus. According to the exhibit’s curator, Ben Wright, “The question is whether you preserve this historical information in a commemorative setting or in an educative setting…The presence of the statue in an educational exhibit, as opposed to a place of honor, underlines that Davis, as well as his ideas and actions, are no longer commemorated by the university.”

No matter how sensitively we contextualize the artifacts themselves, does their larger-than-life presence mitigate or even parody any interpretive value they might otherwise have in the dwarfing gaze of an enclosed exhibition space?

Yet the question still remains whether, by accepting monuments like the University of Texas’ Jefferson Davis statue into our permanent collections, we are not continuing to bestow the same value and authority upon them that they “enjoyed” as ‘stand-alone’ monuments – or even worse, further aggrandizing them- even if we contextualize them in more complicated ways. Indeed, might their very monumentality spark an even fiercer form of physical intimidation when squeezed into the small space of a standard museum building? How would we jibe this ‘collect, interpret, and preserve’ approach with the lessons from Fred Wilson’s 1992 “Mining the Museum¹” exhibit about the not-so-subtle messages of white supremacy embodied in these Confederate statues and symbols and the absence of countervailing monuments and narratives? No matter how sensitively we contextualize the artifacts themselves, does their larger-than-life presence mitigate or even parody any interpretive value they might otherwise have in the dwarfing gaze of an enclosed exhibition space?

University of Virginia professor of architectural history and specialist on the buildings and landscapes of the American south, Louis P. Nelson suggests that perhaps one solution is not to try to transfer gigantic statues to museum buildings, but rather to create museums around the statues themselves. “Such statues cannot stand alone in the middle of a square with azaleas. I have argued that we need to transform these open spaces into open-air museums, where we can learn about the simultaneous histories of lynching, Confederate monuments and Jim Crow policies. These are powerful objects so they will need powerful recontextualization…They need to become catalysts for conversations as objects in a museum might.”²

Who will be the arbiters and decision-makers in the meaning-making process? And how is this process limited—or framed—by the starting assumption that the monuments must be preserved in the public sphere in the first place?

Yet even this approach raises critical questions about the nature of these conversations, the particular “stakeholders” who are brought to—or absent from—the table, and the role of “professionals” in the process. Do we really trust that curators and museum personnel have the right stuff to make this happen? Who will be the arbiters and decision-makers in the meaning-making process? And how is this process limited—or framed—by the starting assumption that the monuments must be preserved in the public sphere in the first place?

Museum educator Janeen Bryant, born and raised in South Carolina, echoes this concern about museum professionals’ training—and ability—to both facilitate, and effectively translate, historically marginalized community voices about the embodied outrage and pain of such monuments on the landscape. “As a native southerner,” she writes, “I often consider the monuments (and confederate flags) as a social marker of claimed territory for white people/whiteness—a visual cue of which town/courthouse/ pit-stop is safe and not safe.” In 2015, activist Bree Newsome’s unsanctioned removal of the Confederate flag generated public outcry for museums to  “hold” controversial objects like the flag. Bryant conducted an informal social media poll of other citizens of color throughout the south, corroborating her concerns about whether museums really have the preparation and capacity to house and display these monuments to our racist national past.

By 2017, it is by far a more commonplace assertion to link museums to community engagement and response. Our challenge as professionals is a willingness to create intellectually active spaces wherever we gather.

For years the echoing silence from mainstream museums was a frustrating reminder that most staff were unwilling or unable to confront racist monuments, racist artifacts, or racism in any form. By 2017, it is by far a more commonplace assertion to link museums to community engagement and response. Our challenge as professionals is a willingness to create intellectually active spaces wherever we gather—in workshops, in conferences, and in staff break rooms—to grapple with the overt assumptions surrounding monuments.

Ibram Kendi, noted historian and anti-racism educator reflected on his childhood in Manassas during a recent keynote speech entitled, “The Unloaded Guns of Racial Violence.” Kendi’s questions seem particularly appropriate for this discussion about museums today:

“In thinking through my comments for today,” he said, “I tried to really understand, first and foremost, how it felt for me, how it feels for so many of us to live day in and day out surrounded by so many Confederate monuments.

  • How does it feel for those people that have to literally watch people cheer for mascots that are a desecration of their people?
  • How does it feel to see myths memorialized in public squares, in massive stadiums?
  • And more importantly, what do these feelings say about our memories and our histories, let alone the memories of the defenders of these monuments and mascots?
  • How can we use these feelings and memories as a motivation to never stop digging into American history to uncover the graves of racial violence?
  • And how can we study these graves, the dead, to give us a better sense of the living—the life of racial violence in the United States today?”

This, it seems to us, is our task as museum curators, directors, and educators of the 21st century. As we formulate our own approach to the thorny issues of where and whether and how to re-contextualize these toppled monuments to our Jim Crow past, we must recognize our own histories of complicity in the centering of white, male, hetero-normative heritages and the celebration of icons of white supremacy in our centuries of collection and display. It is no secret that a willful erasure of people of color (and the long histories of racist assaults) exists in museums and the public landscape in this country. This has prompted generations of activism whereby communities of color have tirelessly contested these narratives and fought for their rightful place in history.

A broader conversation about museums and monuments must include not only a recognition of the landscapes of oppression that the confederate statues mark, but also an understanding of the self-determined landscapes of resistance that marginalized communities have created.

The successful Take ‘Em Down Movement in New Orleans that led to the dismantling of four confederate monuments, for example, was the direct result of community activism led by black organizers such as Michael Moore.However, most coverage attributed the removals to the open-mindedness and forward thinking of New Orleans’ then Mayor Mitch Landrieu, lauding his speech and unprecedented action, rather than acknowledging the movement and the black leadership that truly and thoughtfully catalyzed these changes.

A broader conversation about museums and monuments must include not only a recognition of the landscapes of oppression that the confederate statues mark, but also an understanding of the self-determined landscapes of resistance that marginalized communities have created, of necessity, to mark their own histories, in opposition to, but also in spite of these erasures.

Museo Urbano in El Paso, Museum of Chinese in America in New York, Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, Pauli Murray Center in Durham, Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, and the soon-to-open, National Memorial for Peace and Justice, and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery are only a handful of examples of “bottom-up” museums that are de-centering white supremacist narratives, centering marginalized histories and social justice, modeling innovative approaches to inclusion and redefining the very idea of what constitutes memorials and monuments.

[I]n order for museums to name the message of these oversized propaganda monuments for what they are, they “will have to relinquish their pretense of ideological neutrality. They will have to become truth-telling institutions.”

-Holland Cotter, NYTimes

Mainstream museums have much to learn from the foresight and sophistication of these-and other—culturally, ethnically and racially specific museums, many of which began to emerge as long as 50 years ago in objection to the bias and predominance of preserving and commemorating “white” histories over others. Museums need to critically examine their own histories of exclusion and any continued complicities in what they monumentalize before they earn the right to properly contextualize racist memorials.

As NYTimes critic, Holland Cotter, so correctly notes in that August 20th article cited above, in order for museums to name the message of these oversized propaganda monuments for what they are, they “will have to relinquish their pretense of ideological neutrality. They will have to become truth-telling institutions.”  A tall order, indeed, especially in this era where our President would prefer to flatten the discussion as a fight between those who wish to preserve history and those who would “erase” it.

At AAM’s convening in Phoenix next month, we invite you to join us—museum scholars, curators, directors, educators, and vernacular architects—as we moderate a roundtable at 8:45 am on Tuesday, May 8th, with the wider AAM community to discuss the tempting, yet complicated proposition that “Confederate Monuments Belong in Museums, Not Public Squares.” Perhaps an apt point of departure to spark our conversation might be the prophetic words of artist Nayland Blake, who recently stated, “Museums need to decide whether or not they are active participants in the life of their city or if they are just some kind of trophy house.”


¹The Mining the Museum exhibition project at the Maryland Historical Society shocked and revolutionized the museum world by juxtaposing recorded texts, objects and documents traditionally consigned to storage along with the comfortable objects of privileged white history in the museum’s main floor. One of the most dramatic juxtapositions involved the placement of slave shackles from the collection room next to a polished collection of silver repoussé vessels of the white Maryland upper class.

²This quote was taken from an interview with Louis Nelson conducted by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in 2017. https://www.sitesofconscience.org/en/2017/05/the-end-of-an-era-on-history-context-and-confederate-monuments.

³Julia Halperin. March 16, 2018. ArtNet News. “Clashing Visions, simmering Tensions: How a Confluence of forces Led To MOCA’s Firing of Helen Molesworth

AAM Member-Only Content

AAM Members get exclusive access to premium digital content including:

  • Featured articles from Museum Magazine
  • Access to more than 1,500 resource listings from the Resource Center
  • Tools, reports, and templates for equipping your work in museums
Log In

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *