Across America, bronze rebels are falling. Confederate monuments have come down in New Orleans, Louisiana, Baltimore, Maryland, Durham, North Carolina, Austin, Texas and even Hollywood, California. And over the coming weeks, this list will almost certainly grow.
This campaign has prompted a fierce debate about the politics of history, from the babbling myopia of Donald Trump to more serious proposals about what to do with the statues. To varying degrees of sophistication, most suggestions have circled around a crucial question: how can we learn from the past without celebrating its ugliest features?
I want to sketch out one possibility.
Rather than scrapping these monuments or packing them away, bring them back into the clear light of day – only this time, in a completely different setting. Collect these fallen Confederates in a vast, outdoor museum space, carefully presented and properly contextualised. If done thoughtfully, such a museum could transform objects of veneration into tools for edification, and move the US one step closer towards a fair reckoning with its past.
Memories in context
First and foremost, this museum would require contextualisation in the form of detailed histories for each monument. That would take the sheen off these statues by explaining who these men really were: slaveholders at the helm of a rebellion against the US government. Many of them were large landowners, who amassed fortunes on the backs of the human beings that they owned. In an effort to preserve and extend slavery, they shattered the Union in a war that claimed an estimated 750,000 lives – a higher death toll than all other American military conflicts put together.
But such a museum would need to move well beyond the Civil War and into the Jim Crow era. That’s in fact when the majority of these monuments were erected. The high-tide of Confederate monument-making took place during the early 20th century. It was synchronous with a wave of legislation designed to disempower African Americans across the South. A second spike in Confederate memorialisation occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, when black people began rolling back some of those exclusions. These monuments represent the reactionary rebuttal to the civil rights movement. Or, to borrow a more recent slogan, it was a white supremacist effort to make the South great again.
With period photographs, audio recordings, and video footage, the museum could document how particular monuments became contested political sites, from the civil rights movement to the present day. Accompanying displays could spotlight prominent national figures, like the perennial presidential candidate George C. Wallace, who incorporated Confederate iconography into a segregationist and white supremacist platform.
The museum could also bring together more recent objects, like the mangled bronze of Durham’s Confederate monument, famously torn down by protesters following the events in Charlottesville.
There should also be a recording of the powerful speech delivered by Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, on the removal of rebel statues from his city. These are reminders of how history informs our present moment.
This would not be a museum to dead Confederates so much as a tribute to the people who stood against their rebellion and its pernicious legacies. To this end, the museum could commission new monuments and memorials to place in conversation with these slaveholding rebels: from the former slaves who took up arms against their masters during the Civil War, to the black leaders of the post-emancipation period, to the champions of the civil rights movement, to the victims of the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. This, in effect, would be a museum to a century-and-a-half of civil rights struggle.
Confederate monuments and the history they represent were never confined to the South, however. The museum should therefore include a large interactive map to display the location of over 700 Confederate monuments and statues, and indicate which have been removed and which remain in place.
As monuments continue to fall, this annotated map would serve as an important catalogue of America’s evolving commemorative landscape. Visitors might be surprised to learn that, while most of these monuments are concentrated in the former Confederate states, quite a few were erected in the North and the West as well.
There are, of course, substantial obstacles in the way of such a museum – above and beyond sheer expense. The Smithsonian’s exhibit of the Enola Gay – the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima – demonstrated how political firestorms can engulf public history. Some might also worry that any concentration of Confederate monuments could become a pilgrimage site for white supremacists.
But detailed explanations and a proper contextualisation of these statues would hopefully prevent such an outcome. Plus, admission fees (not to mention a strict no-tiki-torch policy) are nice deterrents to large gatherings of racist agitators. To be sure, some white nationalists may still visit such a museum. But they would find little to celebrate in a place that exposes the treason of Confederate leaders and documents the heroism of black activists and their allies.
What to do with these monuments remains an immensely sensitive and often explosive question. A museum could, however, steer a middle path between those who worry about the erasure of history and those who want relics to white supremacy removed from their literal and figurative pedestals.
The Confederacy surrendered over 150 years ago, but Americans are still fighting over the Civil War. Such a longstanding struggle over historical memory deserves a museum of its own, where relocated statues of Confederate generals can bear witness to the sins of the past and point towards a better future.