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22 U.S. monuments feature mermaids. Just two represent congresswomen

A sweeping audit of nearly 50,000 U.S. monuments reveals a stark portrait of American values over time.

22 U.S. monuments feature mermaids. Just two represent congresswomen
[Source Photos: Sheila Scarborough/Flickr, Kirkikis/iStock, BigFishDesign/iStock, Marelbu/Wiki Commons]

Of the top 50 individuals represented most often in U.S. monuments, all but 6 are white men. Twenty were born into wealth. Half enslaved other people.

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These startling statistics come from a new national audit of 48,178 monuments around the United States and its territories. Developed by Monument Lab, the Philadelphia-based public art and history studio, the audit used a variety of disparate data sources and half a million records to create a cross-checked snapshot of the breadth and scope of known monuments. The findings of the audit and an accompanying searchable database released yesterday represent the largest collection of information about the monuments that dot the streets, squares, and public places of cities and towns across the country.

Launched last November after Monument Lab received a $4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project, the audit is an attempt to fill a hole in the public record and provide a new way for people to understand who and what is being represented in monuments. “We’re looking at the audit as a tool to broaden and deepen the conversation,” says Paul Farber, director and cofounder of Monument Lab. “It’s an attempt to be able to ask open questions rather than treat monuments beyond reproach.”

[Image: Monuments Project]

With new scrutiny being given to the impact of monuments, such as those representing Confederate military officials, the audit is intended to provide data-rich context for how certain monuments came to be, who made them, and what power dynamics they espouse.

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Farber says the audit clearly shows that monuments in the United States are not purely historical markers or educational devices, but present a specific view of historical events. Of the monuments included in the audit, more than 5,900 mention the Civil War, but only 1% of those mention slavery. More than 900 mention pioneers, but only 15% of those mention Native Americans. The data set includes 22 monuments featuring mermaids, but just two representing U.S. congresswomen. “It shows you that monuments don’t simply signal us to remember, they elevate the stories that the people who have long had the power to shape public memory put into the monument landscape,” Farber says.

Because of the decentralized nature of monument creation, there is a lack of readily available information about their construction, funding, and intentions. “A common misperception about monuments is that there is somebody or some central government agency that tracks all of our public monuments,” says Farber. “There is no magic exhaustive list of monuments waiting to be discovered and analyzed.”

Monument Lab’s audit aims to become that list. The nearly 50,000 monuments included in the audit’s study set represent only a small portion of the monuments that exist in the U.S. For the past year, researchers have been digging through more than 1,000 sources of data on monuments from federal, state, and municipal agencies, as well as affinity groups and historical societies. To create a database of this information, Monument Lab narrowed in on sets of data that were already digitized in forms that could translate to a new database—Excel spreadsheets and ArcGIS geospatial data files, for example. The researchers were able to identify 42 publicly accessible and parsable data sources to provide the basis for the study set.

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Sue Mobley, research director at Monument Lab, who led the data collection and processing, says that algorithms were used to unify all these various data sources, which were far from uniform in what information they included. Some had detailed dates, funding sources, and descriptions; others just had names and locations. And just as there’s no central list of monuments, there’s no clear definition of what constitutes a monument. The Smithsonian has a large list of outdoor sculptures, while the Southern Poverty Law Center has a count of Confederate symbols, and the Texas Historical Atlas records historic cemeteries, battlegrounds, churches, and statues. Using an algorithm to unify these sources into a searchable database took, what Mobley calls, “months of all-hands-on-deck testing and tweaking.”

[Image: Monuments Project]

Monument Lab’s database provides a window into some of the dominant narratives that exist in the monument landscape. War is a primary theme and recurs so much that Monument Lab ran a series of comparisons to show its outsize representation. For every 1 mention of peace in a monument, they found 13 that depict war. “It’s not a big city thing or a small town thing or a Southern thing,” Mobley says. “This is everywhere.”

Farber says these kinds of findings are perhaps not surprising, but they shine a light on the themes and narratives that have been memorialized in the United States. “Despite the aura of permanence and timelessness, all monuments are part of a continuum, and deeply a product of their time,” Mobley says.

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And they evolve. The audit notes that monuments have been subject to revision and removal since the very founding of the country—with the July 9, 1776, removal of a statue of England’s King George III in New York. The audit also notes that this continues today, highlighting the most recent takedown on September 8, 2021, of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia.

The audit is a valuable resource that helps show how “the commemorative landscape presents a skewed understanding of what is American history,” says Adam Domby, an associate professor of history at Auburn University and author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.

Domby, who was not involved in the Monuments Project, points to the abundance of Civil War monuments in the South, a period that covers just four years; or the large number of monuments about the Confederacy in South Carolina in the 1860s, when the majority of the population there was, in fact, Black. “This report makes clear what’s missing and how selective we’ve been,” he says.

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He’s hopeful the audit and the database will lead to more research and a growing list of monuments. “It’ll be interesting to see how many more we find now that they’ve spurred us to look,” Domby says. “I hope this isn’t the end of their work.”

Farber says the audit is just the start. As part of the grant it received from the Mellon Foundation, Monument Lab will be issuing its own $100,000 grants to 10 local art and history groups to explore new ways of documenting and studying monuments within their communities. He’s also hoping that having the audit’s information publicly available will encourage more attention to be paid to what is represented in monuments and why.

“We want people to read it, absorb it, and take a moment to connect the dots,” he says, “to say we can no longer look past the symbols that we’ve inherited around us, and really understand that they’re part of an ever-changing narrative of how the past, present, and future fit together.”

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