Removal, Restoration, or Revision? Historical Monuments in Context

As a sculptor producing and analyzing public art, I believe that monuments are neither sacred nor profane. While removal and protection may both be appropriate in different instances, the polarized monument debate ignores a potential middle ground. We can keep evidence of former ways of seeing and valuing the world present in public spaces and critically contextualize and subvert those ideals.

Statues ask us to determine what belongs in public, and why. Some activists desire a symbolic revolution in which all figures considered politically incorrect, including popular heroes and former presidents, be removed from public spaces. While invoking the specter of witch-hunts and “cancel culture,” some conservatives seek to indefinitely preserve all signs of the past in our public spaces, equating the loss of any monument with a loss of History.

Slippage between accounts of protest graffiti (which defaces public art) and actual calls to remove certain statues ignores publicly-supported critical contemporary artistic interventions, like Krzysztof Wodiczko’s architectural projections, that specifically use monuments as a backdrop for stories about social conflicts that persist in the present. 

Removing monuments is a symbolic, rather than systemic change to the (political) landscape. It is far cheaper to diffuse protestors’ anger, by destroying a statue, than to compensate for structural inequalities. Controversial statues have catalyzed important public discussions on public space and on how we teach history. Getting rid of them with no aim to plan what to put in their place removes these debates from the public sphere. 

To raise awareness of many figures’ controversial legacies, municipalities should take multiple approaches to recontextualize and transform different existing monuments. Any form of enslavement is an anathema, however soldiers who fought to defend slavery are not the same as older historical figures that owned slaves who are not the same as other individuals that profited from slavery as a system. 

Some local governments may decide to move statues to less prominent physical locations or museum displays. In 1993, following the fall of communism, monumental statues from Hungary’s Communist period were relocated to the Memento Park in Budapest. In 2018, a statue of J. Marion Sims was removed from Central Park and transferred to Greenwood cemetery in Brooklyn where the gynecologist, who did experiments on slave women, is buried.

Authorities may choose to change how works are presented (landscaping, pedestal, patina, forms) to reflect changing views on the subjects at hand. As a negative object lesson, statues can both embody former values and educate viewers on why we were wrong. The city of Bordeaux, France, has added written plaques to street signs of roads named after men who engaged in the slave trade. 

A visually more compelling option is to commission contemporary artists to make sculptural “skin grafts;” additions or insertions into existing monuments that complicate the stories they tell. Examples include an LED light installation with the Hannah Arendt citation “Nobody has the right to obey” installed upon the façade of a monumental fascist bas relief in Bolzano, Italy and proposals to encourage kudzu plants and vines to grow upon existing confederate monuments.

Adequate funding could have transformed a temporary 2018 addition of a ball and chain knit from red wool, hung at the feet of the now deposed statue of Edward Colson in Bristol, into an actual sculpture cast in the same Bronze as the original. Such an intervention would have kept the original monument present in public space while visually symbolizing the subject’s ties to the slave trade. 

Municipalities can look for inspiration in temporary installations such as Tatzu Nishi’s 2012 Discovering Columbus,produced by Public Art Fund, which reframed the statue in New York’s Columbus Circle within an anonymous living room perched upon a tower of scaffolding. More permanent additions to specific monuments could satisfy both the desire to keep physical evidence of the past in our midst and the need to publicly honor changing interpretations of our history. 

More extreme artist proposals could even physically alter existing statues, permanently knocking them over, slicing them or partially sinking them in concrete to metaphorically enact upon the monuments the violence that their subjects have committed unto others. New sculptural counter-narratives depicting underrepresented minorities, victims of state-sponsored violence, and ordinary citizens from another era can also challenge existing monuments. Compelling anti-monuments, from Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial by to Jochen and Esther Shalev- Gerz’s Monument Against Fascism in Hamburg to Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War, deliberately invite competing interpretations of history rather that illustrating standard official versions of what happened in the past and why.

By commissioning public art that engages more critically with official Histories, communities can create more inclusive, more democratic public places than those left behind, following current clashes and calls for removal.