It’s been five years since white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black churchgoers at a Bible study meeting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. His goal was to start a race war, but images of Roof with the Confederate flag shocked Americans, and the fallout was immediate. His crime kicked off a grassroots movement to remove the Confederate flag, and Confederate monuments in general, from public spaces.
Reflecting on this moment, the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote, “In what seemed like an instant, the South’s 150-year reverence for the Confederacy was shaken.” Since 2015, at least 138 Confederate monuments have been removed from public view. Yet about 800 remain.
That number is changing as a renewed urgency to remove Confederate monuments has surged amid the Black Lives Matter protests that have erupted across the country following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, among others. The movement hasn’t been limited to the United States. In Britain, protesters toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston and threw it into Bristol Harbour, echoing the tens of thousands of dead Africans his slave ships tossed into the Atlantic. In Belgium, protesters swarmed a statue of 19th-century King Leopold II, whose rule of the Congo saw millions killed for his profit.
Removing Confederate monuments isn’t going to erase the past, but lifts some of the burden off the shoulders of Americans living under the weight of that history, as it did in post-Soviet countries. The Confederacy isn’t the only issue of racist memorials in the United States: Last week the statue of toxic racist Frank Rizzo, a Philadelphia police chief and mayor in the 1970s, was finally removed from the steps of City Hall.
But what happens to these monuments after they come down? Some have been damaged or destroyed, others moved into museums, but the majority seem to go into storage, including the Robert E. Lee statue soon to be removed from Richmond’s historic Monument Avenue, and others in cities such as New Orleans, Baltimore, and Bradenton, Florida. But there may be a better answer than just warehousing them, one already adopted by other countries dealing with painful historical legacies.
Former Soviet countries transferred Soviet-era memorials to cemeteries or statue parks. Monuments in Moscow, Budapest, and Lithuania were moved out of city centers and into cemeteries to show the death of their legitimacy or into parks to be recontextualized. In Hungary, Memento Park hosts the plaques and statues of Soviet occupiers and communist dictators, alongside exhibits on the fall of the regime in 1989. In Delhi, a decadeslong effort gradually shifted the statues of the Raj into a quiet park, the flag of India flying high over them.
Can the same thing happen in the United States? The current situation is ad hoc and expensive. Sitting in storage, these monuments remain ghosts of the Confederacy and unexamined memories of the ongoing culture of racism in America. As new monuments begin to come down, it’s time to figure out how they can be used to heal these scars. And unlike in many other countries such as India and Hungary, these are not the images of an occupying power, but of the past injustices of the nation itself—cruelties that a disturbing number of people still support. That makes dealing with the legacy more complicated, and more painful.
Reaching out to artists, museum educators, and cultural workers elicited intense responses, some calling for the statues to be destroyed outright “I do not believe that they have any place in our public spaces,” said one artist who asked not to be identified. “I think it is important that we remember that during this moment, activists are publicly illuminating the violent history of the Confederacy and the hundreds of years of institutionalized racism that led to the murders of countless Black citizens. Preserving the work of Black activists during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests is in my opinion, infinitely more valuable than preserving a false representation of the Confederate Army.”
“It is important to try and incorporate the voices of Black, indigenous, and people of color whenever possible, from the commentary of period figures, like Frederick Douglas … to the voices of activists today as they discuss the painful legacy of these objects and the harm they still cause,” said Kate Sunderlin, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose research involves 19th-century American sculpture.
Confederate monuments might be most appropriately stored and kept in museums that are responsible about contextualizing what they represent. But that’s an expensive proposition.
In 2017, Van Turner, a commissioner in Shelby County, Tennessee, hid several Confederate statues removed from Memphis to protect them. According to a 2018 interview with NPR, “Turner wasn’t planning to hold onto the statues indefinitely. He had imagined a museum would take them. Or maybe a Confederate cemetery or historic battlefield.” Instead, it cost him around $30,000 that year to store them.
These monuments are huge. The statue of Raphael Semmes removed on June 5 from Mobile, Alabama, weighs 33 tons. Not many museums are large enough to display one of these. And then there’s the cost. Take the case of “Old Joe,” a Confederate statue originally displayed in Gainesville, Florida. The local Matheson History Museum rejected it, citing the $36,000 price tag to move, insure, maintain, create exhibit signage, and fund other related expenses, well above its budget.
Old Joe ended up being returned to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization founded during the Civil War that has funded some monuments, markers, buildings and other commemoratives—but which has been a vigorous defender of the Confederacy’s racism historically and more recently fought attempts to remove statues. Old Joe now sits back on display in a private cemetery. Transferring the statues to private hands makes little sense if private displays perpetuate the old myths of the “Lost Cause” anyway.
Still, museums have thoughtfully presented exhibits that explore racism in America. Take, for example, exhibitions like “Without Sanctuary: Photographs and Postcards of Lynching in America,” Fred Wilson’s project “Mining the Museum,” and the labels installed at the Worcester Art Museum that draw attention to the connections between works of art and the history of slavery in the United States.
A national monument park might be able to solve some of these issues, if the commitment and funding was there. The trick is to avoid creating a site that might become a place of worship for white supremacists, said Isabel Singer, an exhibit developer at Luci Creative. “If the decisions about whether to display them and how to display them are made in consultation with local communities, particularly black communities,” Singer said, “they can become powerful reminders of past horrors and inspire people to fight for greater equality.”
Rebecca Keller, an artist and educator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has some ideas for dynamic engagements museums could host. “I could imagine a laboratory, an experimental situation, where Black artists and collaborative teams recontextualized, physically altered/added to, incorporated text or other imagery, projections, or created counter-monuments to be situated in particular relation to the existing statuary once removed from its place of honor.… The idea is to use the statues as both physical and conceptual challenges, viewing them as an ongoing question: what is to be done with this?”
In December, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts unveiled its own countermonument: Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War. The enormous statue resembles a traditional Confederate monument from afar, but up close the rider is revealed to be a young Black man with his dreadlocks in a ponytail. Rumors of War sits not far from the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s Memorial Building, now charred after it was recently set ablaze.
Whether Confederate monuments get destroyed, recontextualized in statue parks or cemeteries, displayed in museums, or challenged by countermonuments, actions have to follow that creates meaningful change not just in the memory of the dead, but in the reality of the living.
For example, the Hungarian government placed a statue of Imre Nagy, Hungary’s leader during the country’s 1956 uprising, with his back turned to a monument to the Soviet Red Army in Budapest, while a Russian nongovernmental organization installed a memorial to victims of political repression steps from the statue of Soviet secret police founder Felix Dzerzhinsky in central Moscow.
In his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who died in the Charleston killings, then President Barack Obama said that “history can’t be a sword to justify injustice, or a shield against progress, but must be a manual for how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past—how to break the cycle.” Americans’ job is to reckon with their racist past—and present—and move forward.
Catherine White is a museum educator who has worked at cultural institutions in Chicago, Beijing, and San Francisco. She holds a master’s in art education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.