Who do American monuments honor most? A flagship study finally has answers

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Joan of Arc is more popular than Alexander Hamilton. Saint Francis of Assisi is ahead of Robert E. Lee. And there are 11 times as many mermaids as there are women in Congress. These are some of the most surprising findings from the first comprehensive study of American public monuments, the results of which were released today. The report’s creators sifted through nearly half a million federal, state, local, tribal and territorial documents to provide a richly detailed and deeply revealing view of the nation’s memorial landscape.

Called the National Monument Audit, the study funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation adds important data to the country’s heated debate over who and what should be commemorated in American public spaces.

“We started out as a class project asking questions,” said Paul Farber, co-director of the effort. In 2012, while teaching a course on monuments and urban space at the University of Pennsylvania, he was struggling to find hard data on the subject. “There is a common misconception that a government agency tracks all monuments – when they were built and to whom they were dedicated. But there is nothing like it.

Farber and his colleagues set out to obtain what he called “a panoramic view” that could show general patterns in how Americans commemorated their past. The team counted 50,000 monuments scattered across the United States and its overseas territories.

Abraham Lincoln tops the list of people celebrated at public monuments in the United States – a total of nearly 200 – with George Washington in second and Christopher Columbus in third. Less predictably, Casimir Pulaski, a Polish cavalry officer during the War of Independence, defeated Thomas Jefferson with 51 three-dozen memorials dedicated to the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Among the 50 most commemorated, Confederate leaders outperformed women by four to three. Half of this group of 50 owned slaves, and all but six were white men.

The audit also found that US memorials reflect a national focus on violent events. Entirely a third commemorative war. For example, while nearly 6,000 refer to the civil war, only nine mention the era of reconstruction that followed. The study also found that the memory of past violence is distorted: not a single monument recalls one of the 34 massacres of black Americans recorded during this tumultuous post-war period.

The experience of African Americans is not the only strand of national history overlooked in public spaces. The team counted nearly a thousand memorials erected after 1930 celebrating the white pioneers but largely avoiding mentioning the darker aspects of the Westward migration, such as the massacres, land grabbing and the non-respect of solemn treaties with the Amerindians.

“The history of the United States as told by our current landscape of monuments distorts our history,” the report concludes. “Where there are inequalities and injustices, monuments often perpetuate them. “

Several historians have praised the study for shedding light on a nationwide debate that generated a lot of heat. “The audit shows how many Americans don’t see themselves reflected in public art,” said Erin Thompson, historian at John Jay College, CUNY, and author of an upcoming book titled Shattering statues. “Monuments are supposed to inspire us all, so what does it mean when our monuments make it seem like only rich white men deserve to be honored?” “

Lexi Cleveland, a black public historian in Richmond, said the study’s focus on “the need for bigger stories resonates with me.” Cleveland added that she also welcomed what she called “a large body of research that will promote further dialogue.”

This dialogue became controversial – and even violent – in the wake of the Charlottesville White Supremacy Rally in 2018, which centered on the statues of Jefferson and Confederate leaders, who went to death. The debate intensified after the death of George Floyd in May 2020 at the hands of the Minneapolis police, which sparked protests and riots across the country. The half-dozen rebel memorials on Richmond’s famous Monument Avenue, for example, fell in the summer of 2020. The remaining statue, of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, was removed earlier this month after a case that was brought before the Virginia Supreme. To research.

Thompson estimates that some 170 monuments – less than half of one percent – were dismantled following Floyd’s death. More than 80 percent of these were removed as a result of municipal decisions, while the rest were overthrown by protesters. The vast majority were memorials to Confederate leaders or increasingly controversial figures like Columbus. (See how 9/11 memorials help us remember and cry.)

The monument audit confirmed that 99.4 percent of American monuments remain solidly on their pedestals after last year’s upheaval. He also points out that the monuments as a group have never been static and that over time hundreds have been moved, altered or dismantled for a wide variety of reasons, from community loathing to road building. . “When power changes and values ​​change, monuments are replaced,” said Greg Werkheimer, a cultural heritage lawyer in Richmond involved in the dismantling of Confederate statues there.

S. Waite Rawls, retired director of the Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, denounced the removal of monuments, including one in Richmond, to soldiers and sailors of the rebel cause. “These are guys who have generally been drafted, and they should be honored,” he said. “It’s like demolishing the Vietnam War Memorial.”

Rawls noted that there are now more monuments to African Americans than Confederates in Richmond, pointing out that an African American group unveiled a statue dedicated to black emancipation and freedom on September 24.

The monument audit calls for more memorials that reflect an evolving nation, “especially as coalitions of artists and more led local communities grapple with toxic legacies and open up new processes to represent a fuller story in public spaces “. The study is part of a larger $ 250 million project funded by Mellon, which the foundation says seeks to “transform the way our country’s stories are told in public spaces” by better reflecting “the vast and rich complexity of American history “.

Since 2015, the Monument Lab, funded by Mellon, has supported what it calls “participatory action and artistic research” in major American cities, with the aim of improving the diversity of monuments. The lab intends to provide $ 100,000 to each of the 10 teams to involve local communities in the making of monuments; over 200 groups have applied for the grants. Farber said the product could be a traditional monument, walking trail, or learning program. An exhibition of the results is planned for next summer.

“My intention as an artist is to create works that honor and uplift the spirit of the community, such as mothers, farm workers, immigrants, storytellers and healers,” said Michelle Angela Ortiz, artist and activist who has produced more than 50 large-scale works of art.

Those looking to improve the country’s memorial landscape have said they want federal and state financial support. But Thompson warns that governments appear to reject the change. “After the protests began last summer, lawmakers in 18 states proposed bills increasing criminal penalties for monument vandalism,” she noted. “Meanwhile, 13 state legislatures have considered bills that would make even official removal of monuments more difficult or downright impossible. “

With the audit, however, researchers, lawmakers, and the public have a clear picture on which to judge America’s monumental landscape.


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