New Essay at History@Work on Monuments at Statuary Hall

The National Council on Public History published an essay of mine about monument removals at National Statuary Hall on their History@Work blog earlier this week. Regular readers will see familiar arguments that I’ve been making about the role of historical iconography for quite a while on this blog, but in the essay I wanted to focus specifically on what I think is a great example of a dynamic, ever-changing commemorative landscape that has been modified quite often. By exploring changes at National Statuary Hall, I hope to complicate the idea that monument removal automatically constitutes “erasing history.” I also hope to demonstrate that Americans have been removing monuments ever since their country’s founding, and that such removals are actually a natural byproduct of a society’s changing values and evolving understanding of its history.

Please give the essay a read if you get the chance. Although I have written a lot on this particular topic, I believe this is probably the strongest, most definitive argument on where I stand on this issue. So far I’ve gotten largely positive feedback and even the popular historian and blogger John Fea featured it on his website.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to Christopher Graham and Nicholas K. Johnson for reading a draft of the essay before it went online. Thank you!


7 thoughts on “New Essay at History@Work on Monuments at Statuary Hall

  1. Congrats and great work, Nick.

    Several thoughts that may or may not really fit together!

    I know we’ve discussed this before, and it’s always a good discussion. This time in particular, I’m reminded again of one of the things I really love about history — that history “repeats.” In this case, the on-going efforts by people in their various times and places to change the commemorative landscape or the “geography of everyday life,” as I’ve called it at times. This is important for me to remember, especially as I am one who has written in several articles about how people need to “stop erasing history.”

    In one sense, removing monuments does erase and change history. Such objects “store” memories. Whey they are gone, we don’t think about it as often or in the same way, so the historical memory changes.

    Of course, too, there are infinite ways to “frame” and teach about the past. I wonder how different are collective response would be to now-offensive public memorials if K-12 students got more rigorous history lessons.

    I think I’d better understand arguments for removing offensive statues if there were more statues in my everyday life. The only statue I actually ever see is one of Stephen F. Austin on the way to and from Houston. And I will say, it irritates me every time and reminds me of what a bad guy he was. The vast majority of people, however, see it and have their Texas Pride reinforced. Maybe they should remove that one! 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading and the kind words, Andrew! Your comment is really thoughtful and I appreciate the slight pushback. Let me try to formulate a clear response.

      With regards to history repeating, yes, we’ve had this conversation before. I am still skeptical of the premise that history “repeats.” Ibram X. Kendi’s recent book on the history of racist ideas in the United States has pushed me to think about the idea that history oftentimes “continues” rather than repeats. One of Kendi’s powerful arguments is that racist ideas evolve with the passage of time, just like anti-racist ideas. The ideas never went away and suddenly came back and repeated themselves. Rather than viewing old ideas about racial inferiority as dead and irrelevant, he brilliantly shows how those ideas have evolved and continue to penetrate our intellectual discourse and policy initiatives. What this means to me is that the rise of a phenomenon like mass incarceration is not an example of “history repeating itself” but of historical ideas evolving and continuing into the present through a blend of old and new techniques. Therefore I am still of the belief that history rhymes, evolves, and continues into the present, but it does not repeat. There are distinct differences in those terms that I believe cannot be reconciled to imply the same outcomes.

      What I hoped to demonstrate in my NCPH piece is that tearing down monuments in this country has its own history that is worth exploring further. The context, contingencies, and terms of debate within our current conversation about Confederate monuments are new, but they fit within a larger, continuing framework of alterations to our country’s commemorative landscape.

      With regards to “erasing history,” we all have to be careful about what that term means within the context of public iconography. Removing a monument from a public space does not automatically imply an erasure of history, although you are certainly correct that any particular removal changes the ways we remember the past. For example, moving a monument from a public space to a museum is not an erasure of history. When I visited Berlin a couple years ago, I did not feel like anyone forgot about World War II because all Nazi iconography was removed from public spaces and in some cases removed to various museums. In fact, the museums I saw all did a fantastic job of interpreting the war and Germany’s responsibility for bringing it on. Likewise, even the removal of the King George III monument in New York City that I cite in my NCPH essay isn’t an erasure of history. The people who tore down that monument knew what they were doing and took meticulous records of what happened both on that day and subsequently when it was melted down. How we remember that event is undoubtedly different from what it would be had the monument remained standing, but the history of it hasn’t been erased, thankfully, and we can continue to use those historical resources to discuss it today.

      Public iconography is complex because it says as much, if not more, about the era in which it was erected than the era in which the historical event or person lived. In this sense I believe there are real differences between iconography–which is inherently political and a form of memory-making–and a primary source document that functions as a historical tool that we use to make sense of and determine the truth of the past through evidence. Taking down Robert E. Lee’s statue doesn’t prevent me from reading books about him, going through his letters, or visiting his home. Banning books about him in a classroom or destroying documents connected to him would be a true outrage and is what I would consider an erasure of history. I am not convinced that removing his statue in New Orleans automatically constitutes an erasure of history.

      Again, I think a real strength of the position I take in this essay is that I believe we should look at all public iconography on an individualized basis. I do not approach these icons with the intention to either keep up or remove a particular artifact but to use historical evidence, educational programming, and community dialogue to help communities make informed decisions about their public iconography. My current thinking tends to lean towards keeping monuments up or removing them to a museum so that we can continue to use them to interpret the past, but at the end of the day I believe local communities should decide what icons they want in their public spaces. They should be free to determine whether those icons are worth honoring and whether they reflect the values of the community as a whole. This comment went long, hope it makes sense!

      1. And thanks for your thoughtful and detailed reply, Nick!

        Ibram X. Kendi’s book is on my list of books to read as soon as I can get to it.

        I’d for sure agree that history rhymes, evolves, and continues. When I say “repeats,” I for sure do not intend to argue that it “repeats” in the way an audio file can be “repeated” and be identical. To me, thinking about it in terms of how historical ideas are popularized and how to make non-historians interested, saying history repeats works – everyone I have heard say history “repeats” actually defines “repeats” in this context as actually meaning that history rhymes, evolves, and continues. In reference to your post specifically, it helps us realize and remember that monuments have been the subject of debate for a long time, as have debates about what stories we tell and don’t tell and how we tell them when it comes to the past. 🙂

        You could write a really interesting book on the topic of tearing down monuments, actually!

        Your comment really makes me think about how exactly “erasure of history” is/should be defined. My first thought goes back to our h/H conversations. 🙂

        99% of History is by default “erased” ( for more, please see

        I don’t disagree with your comments that (re)moving a monument isn’t erasing history since people could still read books or learn about it otherwise. But what about the vast majority who don’t have access to those books or don’t know enough to go beyond what they see or don’t have time to do further research? For some specific people/groups/communities, it could effectively amount to history being erased when monuments are moved. So, I guess for sure it’s not a systemic issue of political bodies erasing history. But, how do we know that it won’t have that consequence for the less privileged? I even have very privileged students—college students—who have no clue who Robert E. Lee is.

        I’m also very interested in why we put so much weight on statues and why we assign them so much meaning. Lots of interesting semiotics work could be done there! I’ve never really understood how someone could be “offended” by a statue.

        I also wonder about leaving the decision to local communities. To me this might parallel say the Texas State Board of Education that does not allow experts and makes really (stupid!) decisions about what children can and can’t learn.

        I guess this is probably enough thoughts for now. 🙂

        1. Hi Andrew,

          Thanks for the follow-up comments. I agree with a lot of what you say, so I’ll address just a couple points. You asked:

          “what about the vast majority who don’t have access to those books or don’t know enough to go beyond what they see or don’t have time to do further research?”

          All I can really say is that we must continually work to educate people about the importance of studying history and for funding initiates through public and private funding to accomplish this work. In my own work I interact with students from all different racial, education, and economic backgrounds. Sometimes they know a lot about the Civil War, sometimes it scares me how little they know. I see my work and the work of the National Park Service more broadly as meeting people where they are on their learning journey and providing some kind of spark to initiate further inquiry down the line. If my work inspires a kid to go read a book at the library, helps them with a school project, or inspires them to study history in school and maybe pursue a career in this field, then I consider my work a success. People will take away their own impressions at Civil War monuments, historic sites, and other history-related initiatives whether or not a professionally-trained historian is there to mediate the experience, but if we historians can play a part in that experience and demonstrate the importance of our work, we can make the world a better, more informed place.

          “I also wonder about leaving the decision to local communities. To me this might parallel say the Texas State Board of Education that does not allow experts and makes really (stupid!) decisions about what children can and can’t learn.”

          I am comfortable with local communities deciding what sort of artwork, iconography, and other artifacts they want to display in public spaces. What you describe is a separate and I think more complex issue about what children should learn in a classroom setting and who gets to set that agenda. Again, I make a distinction between iconography (which is a form of emotional artistic memory-making that does not always value historical fact) and primary source documentation that is used to understand *what actually happened* in the past. If a local community wants to celebrate the Confederacy in their public art, they should be free do to so and to face the consequences, whether good or bad, for doing so. The work of understanding the Confederacy’s legacy must start in the classroom, not the public square.

Comments are closed.