Take a read through New York City’s new report on its public monuments, and you’ll come away with the distinct sense that the complex debate over public monuments is deeply unsuited for the way many Americans argue today, when facts are considered démodé. We live in a moment that doesn’t exactly reward slow, nuanced discussions.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have them, and cities across the country already are–including New York, which recently released the controversial results of a group of 18 experts commissioned to study problematic monuments in the city. The commission, including artist Pepón Osorio, sociologist Richard Alba, Spelman College president Mary Schmidt Campbell, and architect Mabel O. Wilson, was created by Mayor Bill de Blasio after protests over confederate monuments left one anti-white supremacist protestor dead in Charlottesville and spurred a nationwide debate around public memorials in the fall of 2017, and it faced a deceptively simple question: How should we treat public monuments to figures who committed evil acts, but who were nevertheless memorialized with statues and plaques in their time?
Take a marker on Broadway in Manhattan for Philippe Pétain, a French general heralded as a hero during World War I, who went on to lead France’s Nazi-aiding Vichy government during World War II. Or a statue in Central Park of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology” who carried out excruciating experiments on non-consenting slave women. Or the statue of Theodore Roosevelt mounted on a horse outside the Museum of American History. Or the big one: The towering statue of Christopher Columbus at the center of the city’s eponymous traffic circle.
Should these monuments be removed? Should they be updated to better articulate the horrors in which these figures took part? Should we replace them, or add to them, with statues honoring their victims? Or should we let them remain as a reminder–a warning of sorts–of the ease with which evil is normalized and written out of history? And who gets to decide? What happens to the old monument when it’s removed? Who designs the new one? Should we leave instructions for future Americans about how to think about the monuments we make today?
The report is really a practical framework for answering all of those questions about a particular monument. That includes setting up a standard for if the city should review it at all (has it sustained an adverse public reaction for more than two years? Has their been a new revelation about the legacy of the figure?) but also the review process itself, which the report describes it as akin to an environmental impact report for monuments. First, who is memorialized and how were they perceived during their time? What are the legal, financial, and historical issues around the statue? Then it’s on to public input, including at least one public hearing and a public survey about the monument, and finally a recommendation to the city. That could mean a permanent removal or relocation of the piece, or the editing of it, or even the addition of new commissioned monuments in response to their findings.
As far as a practical framework goes, it’s a sensible one, and the commission put it to work to evaluate the monuments of Pétain, Roosevelt, Columbus, and Sims. Their recommendations illustrate how fraught these decisions will be, even with a scaffolding of official protocols in place. The commission clearly anticipated that its findings would be explosive, too: “We understand that it’s not realistic–nor is it the goal–for everyone to be on board for every decision,” write Darren Walker and Tom Finkelpearl in an introduction.
For Sims, the surgeon who experimented on women slaves, the commission asked the city to relocate the statue to Sims’s grave and replace it on its current pedestal with a new work of art about publicly suggested historical figures, like women of color in science and medicine. It also asked the city to include a plaque that describes his research and honors three of the slave women he operated on–Lucy, Anarcha, and Betsey–with the relocated site and at the former site of the memorial.
When it came to Pétain, the Nazi collaborator, the commission decided to keep the marker in place. In part, it says, because the marker is part of a larger installation that memorializes every ticker tape parade that’s ever gone down Broadway, including one for Pétain before World War II. “Clearly, some ticker-tape parades misjudged some so-called heroes whom history later cast in shadows,” they write. “It is often difficult for us to acknowledge judgments of the past from our perspective in the present, but removal of the vestiges of past decisions risks leading to cultural amnesia.” Instead, they ask the city to add historical context to the installation, like way-finding, and to rename the overall installation (“Canyon of Heroes”) to something that doesn’t characterize the subjects as heroes.
The group couldn’t agree on the Theodore Roosevelt statue, whose history of promoting the idea of a racial hierarchy and eugenics is actually part and parcel of the American Museum of Natural History’s legacy itself. (After all, they point out, the AMNH hosted two International Eugenics Congresses in the 1920s and ’30s.) About half of the commission voted for further study of the monument, while the other half voted to relocate it, and a few voted to add additional context.
The commission was also in disagreement about whether to remove the Columbus statue. A majority voted to keep the statue, which many see as a monument to the violence and oppression of indigenous and colonized peoples and others see as a tribute to Italian-American heritage. The group unanimously voted to commission a group of new monuments to indigenous peoples within the next five years, as well as commission works of art that will be set up in proximity to the statue and create a mapping project to shed light on Lenape, Algonquian-language, Native New Yorker sites in the city–as well as designate an Indigenous Peoples Day and other educational measures.
These aren’t the outcomes many New Yorkers hoped for. The report suggests maintaining and contextualizing the impact of these four men, rather than removing their honorifics entirely. Will other cities adopt a similar framework for evaluating the people they monumentalized in centuries past? Or will officials choose to make unilateral decisions, or ignore controversy entirely? Over the next year, we’re likely to find out.
For now, I’d like to hear your opinions on whether these works should be removed, relocated, or contextualized. Email me at CoDTips@fastcompany.com to share your thoughts.