The Enduring Relevance of Obsolete Monuments – Segal Brings History Off the Pedestal

The Austrian writer Robert Musil once remarked, that nothing is as invisible as a public monument. Although typically overlooking busy boulevards and bustling squares, they are taken for granted as meaningless pieces of street furniture. That is, until a radical change in perception suddenly makes them the very center of attention.
In 1776, Americans toppled a gilded equestrian statue of King George III. The French Revolution in 1789, the communist Russian Revolution in 1917, and the anti-communist revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, all resulted in a massive toppling of public statues and monuments representing the heroes and values of an overturned regime. We are in the midst of such a revolutionary moment right now.
Sculptures are works of art, but public statues and monuments are seldom of an exceptional artistic quality. Their aim is not so much to aesthetically please or impress but to convey a political message: these are the men (and very occasionally women) you should respect and emulate as shining examples of virtuous conduct. They embody and exemplify our community and represent our highest values and ideals. Unlike a commercial hero like Marlboro Man who exists to sell cigarettes, the heroes of public monuments sell something more abstract: a sense of national values. While Marlboro Man presents himself through posters and billboards, the bronze, or granite monuments in public space claim eternity through their enduring materiality.
What is remarkable during the current wave of monument removals in the United States and beyond, is that they are not (yet) part of a new political order. On the contrary, they take place during one of the most reactionary governments in American history.
The President of the United States in his Mount Rushmore speech just claimed that “our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.” Moreover, he threatened protesters defacing monuments with jail time up to ten years.
It is the protesters, in many cases supported by mayors, city councils, churches and universities, who are responsible for the awakened consciousness of the structural racism and white supremacy expressed in many of these monuments. Protests against genocidal European conquerors, Confederate generals, or racist politicians are not new, but they gained momentum following the widespread protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd.
Data from the New York Times cites this as the largest American protest movement ever; more people have marched for Black Lives Matter than even marched against the Vietnam War. Between 15 and 26 million people have joined in marches across the country, and protests continue today.
The statues coming down are not just Confederate generals. Among the targeted monuments are several dedicated to Spanish conquistadors, governors and brutal priests, such as Juan de Oñate, Diego de Vargas and Juniper Serra. Statues of Christopher Columbus, have been razed in Boston, Detroit, Houston, Philadelphia, Saint Louis, and San Francisco.
Of course, monuments to the Confederacy have been removed such as statues of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Albert Pike, Alfred Mouton and Albert G. Jenkins. American Presidents with racist views, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson are also in play. Roosevelt’s equestrian statue was removed from the Natural History Museum in New York, while the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Relations at Princeton University was renamed. Before the BLM protests, in 2019, the university had commissioned the artwork “Double Sights” by Walter Hood, to address the problematic contradictions in Wilson’s legacy.
More controversial is the toppling by protesters of American presidents with a personal history of slave ownership, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson (both in Portland) who played a seminal role in the founding of American democracy.
This is not the place to argue which historical figures “deserve” to be removed from public space, but it is important to note that not all of the removals have the same degree of public support.
The majority of historical figures who are immortalized in monuments worldwide do not have an immaculate human rights record in contemporary perspective. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are not your typical examples of national heroes.
Unironically, conservatives who most strongly support the protection of historical monuments are generally among those least sensitive to the protection of Native American sacred lands and burial sites, which they are happy to sacrifice for oil pipelines and other commercial interests.
The question is now: what should we do with these problematic remnants of the past? Two historical examples – shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Berlin city council decided to take down a large Lenin sculpture by Soviet sculptor Nikolai Tomski in the eastern part of the city, in order to erase a prominent symbol of totalitarian oppression. The decision was not uncontested. A group of local residents fought to at least temporarily keep the monument as a memorial, not because they were in awe of Lenin or the beauty of the monument, but because they argued the statue, with the help of critical artistic interventions, could actually help East Germans coming to terms with their past. Nevertheless, in 1991 the city sawed the 60-feet granite sculpture into 129 pieces and buried them in a sand grove near Müggelsee, a city lake in eastern Berlin. When in 2009 the new Citadel Museum in Berlin-Spandau asked permission to show Lenin’s head as part of their permanent exhibition “Unveiled: Berlin and Its Monuments,” the city refused with a series of wavering arguments: first it was argued that separating Lenin’s head from his other buried body parts would violate heritage interests, then in a perfect example of non-sequitur it was claimed city officials had forgotten where the Lenin pieces were buried, and finally it was stated the request could not be honored because local sand lizards were using the sand grove as their breeding space. It took the museum more than six years to finally get Lenin’s head on display.
The fate of communist monuments in Budapest is a different story. In 1993, the city council decided to dedicate a park outside the city, Szobor Park Múseum, also known as Memento Park, as the final resting place for monuments from the communist era. Removed from their original locations in central squares and popular city parks, and separated from their pedestals, they are now a destination for curious tourists as well as school group excursions. Former Hungarian President Árpád Göncz explained that the park did not serve any particular political agenda but highlights the dignity of democracy and the responsibility of historical thinking. In Momento Park, the monuments no longer inspire or intimidate, but remain accessible as objects of study and reflection.
It seems that politically or culturally obsolete monuments do not always have to be removed in order to change their meaning. An artistic reinterpretation can be very effective in expressing a new take on an old message.
In Berlin, the city council preferred a cleansing of communist symbols in public space over any creative recontextualization, even in the controlled space of a historical museum.
In Budapest, on the other hand, an inspired solution was found to do exactly that and keep these historical remnants relevant.
In the United States, we should not forget that apart from political statements in their own right, monuments are also a sign of their times. Not so much of the period they refer to but of the period in which they were erected, often the Jim Crow years. And while it is certainly not necessary to keep them all, safeguarding some significant examples at dedicated places would be meaningful for educational purposes. They could still send a powerful message, albeit completely opposite to their original intention.

Joes Segal is the Chief Curator and Director of Programming at the Wende Museum. 

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