What Does It Take to “Kill” a Monument?

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What Does It Take to “Kill” a Monument?

From May 30 to June 30, 2020, at the height of Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, over 100 monuments that glorified racism came down in the US — from colonial and genocidal figureheads toppled by crowds and drowned in rivers to enslavers and Confederate soldiers ordered removed by acquiescing governments. But where are those monuments now? And what will it take to ensure they are never put back on a pedestal?

These are the questions posed by Lyra D. Monteiro, an assistant professor in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark, and her former students Hayat Abdelal and Tyler Crespo Rodriguez. Inspired by conversations about the fate of fallen statues that arose during a graduate seminar Monteiro taught at Rutgers this spring, titled “Public Histories of Slavery,” they began tracking the disgraced sculptures.

“We became concerned with the relative absence of awareness of what happened to statues after their removal was celebrated,” Abdelal, Monteiro, and Rodriguez told Hyperallergic. Many of the toppled symbols, they discovered, are now sitting safely in storage, the possibility of their resurrection always looming.

“Our emphasis is on highlighting the tendency for these statues to survive such attacks — even if they’re moved elsewhere, they’re often cleaned, dredged from rivers, have missing body parts reattached by governments or other owners of the statues, and stored for their own safety,” the group said. “We believe that this reflects the power inherent in the oppressive nature of these physical objects.”

This summer, they launched their project “How to Kill a Statue,” a series of daily Twitter and Instagram publications for every monument “attacked” exactly one year ago last summer, including those decapitated, spray-painted, toppled in protest, or formally removed. They turned to a range of sources from platforms doing similar cataloguing work, like @move_silent_sam and @heresysquad, to news articles, Change.org petitions, and even lists compiled by disgruntled conservative Tweeters.

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 11, the team released an interactive map with photos of the fallen statues and the date and circumstances of their dismantling.

“How to Kill a Statue” exists primarily on the social media accounts of Washington’s Next!, an offshoot of the Museum On Site (TMOS), a multidisciplinary initiative co-founded in 2008 by Monteiro and writer Andrew Losowsky. Riled by Trump’s tweets in defense of Confederate monuments after the fatal “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, Monteiro started using the platform to examine public responses to racist statues; its name is a sassy riposte to the former president’s rhetorical: “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson — whoʼs next, Washington, Jefferson?”

The debate of what to do with these notorious memorials, sculptures, and symbols — particularly Confederate statues, nearly 100 of which were removed last year alone — is not new, but has intensified in recent months in parallel with a heightened awareness of racial violence and inequality. Even in states where governments have made laudable efforts to remove statues from public view, however, their ultimate fate is uncertain. In a March 2021 op-ed for the Washington Post, Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College and Hyperallergic contributor, wrote that “not a single one of America’s hundreds of public Confederate monuments has ever come permanently, irreversibly down.” (Thompson’s research, Monteiro said, was a critical source for the project.)

For example, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia overcame an obstacle course of legal challenges to finally remove an equestrian bronze of General Robert E. Lee towering over Richmond’s Monument Avenue this summer, the largest Confederate statue in the South. The Democratic leader even found the funds for a community effort to reimagine the boulevard and commission new public art. But Lee and his horse will remain in storage at a state facility, Northam’s office said, “until a permanent, appropriate location is chosen for its display.”

The empty pedestal of a removed Confederate memorial to Stonewall Jackson on Richmond’s Monument Avenue. (Via Flickr)

Abdelal, Monteiro, and Rodriguez uncovered lesser-known yet fascinating stories that show how monuments acquire new lives. Also in Richmond, a local Italian American group petitioned the city to hand over a Columbus statue that demonstrators had dumped in a lake — so it can be re-erected on someone’s private land. In Mobile, Alabama, Mayor Sandy Stimpson ordered removed a likeness of Navy Admiral Raphael Semmes, considered a Confederate war hero. Stimpson announced it would be displayed inside the History Museum of Mobile.

“Many people who are eager to see statues taken down still tend to suggest that they be put in a museum — as if it is unthinkable that destroying them could be an option,” the group told Hyperallergic.  

“What does it take, then, to kill a statue, so that it does not get re-erected in the future?” they ask.

That much is still to be determined, but the group aims to shine a light on the status of monuments that have all but disappeared in the public imagination. In fact, they argue, these massive memorials in bronze and stone are often very much alive.

“It’s been an observation of mine for a while that the communities who struggle for decades to remove statues rarely control what happens to the statue after it is taken down, which really sours the success,” Monteiro told Hyperallergic. “We hoped to highlight that aspect where we could, so that folks endeavoring to remove statues legally or otherwise would know to factor it in. That anything short of destruction of the body — killing the statue, if you will — meant the statues were probably going to rise again, sooner or later.”

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