The latest issue of Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art is out, with a new contribution from me! A few months ago, I was asked to submit a short essay for this issue’s Bully Pulpit on Confederate monuments. The assignment was not to rehash the “keep them up”/”take them down” debate that has been ongoing for at least the last three years, but to find a fresh angle to think about what the current debate tells us about the materiality of monuments, the state of American memory, or any other aspect of monuments, memory, or history.
I was honored to be included along with three senior scholars whose work I have long respected and referenced. Dell Upton’s essay asks us to take a critical look at the ways in which unequivocally heroic monuments to white Americans have prevented us from having nuanced conversations about America’s fraught history. Renée Ater discusses the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama as a counter-monument that upends the Lost Cause narrative as presented in Confederate monuments. And finally, Kirsten Pai Buick exposes the role monuments play in papering over the violence of slavery, setting traditional American monuments in opposition to the more nuanced art of African-American women, including Mary Edmonia Lewis, Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, and Nona Faustine.
Alongside the work of these fabulous scholars, I argue that the current debate over the future of Confederate monuments fails to consider the long history of monumental alteration and destruction. Beginning with the mundane and unremarkable relocation of a Union Civil War monument from Mount Moriah Cemetery to Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, I write:
This is not an abnormal event in the life cycle of public monuments, which exist outdoors in public space and are subject to the forces of public opinion, historical revisionism, convenience, and weather. Contrary to popular perception, monuments are not immutable or unchanging edifices; instead, there can be adjustments and adaptations according to the circumstances of their environments.