Museums Question Confederate Monuments' Place Within Their Walls

By Mariana Dale
Published: Wednesday, May 9, 2018 - 11:04am
Updated: Wednesday, May 9, 2018 - 5:02pm

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Arizona Confederate Memorial
Mariana Dale/KJZZ
This memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops was built in 1961 and sits east of the state's Captiol among more than a dozen other memorials.

Arizona’s Capitol in Phoenix has gotten much quieter since the end of a historic teacher walkout last week.

You can walk the grounds and see more than a dozen monuments commemorating everything from to World War II marines to law enforcement canines and perhaps most controversially, confederate troops.

In the last year people have called for these memorials to be taken down here and all around the country.

Less than two miles away, museum professionals discussed whether their institutions are the right place for these monuments in a standing-room-only panel at the American Alliance of Museums annual conference Tuesday.

“We don’t want to be in the cold storage business,” said North Carolina Museum of History Chief Curator Benjamin Filene. “We want to surface issues, be a place where you don’t hide things places where communities come together and discuss and wrestle with contemporary questions.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called for monuments to be put in museums on a Los Angeles CBS station. An LA Times headline read “What to do with Confederate monuments? Put them in museums as examples of ugly history, not civic pride”

“An entire generation’s worth of work on our part to explain why we are meaningful and relevant and central to community life has not quite taken hold if we’re still seen as a place where you marginalize things that you do not want to deal with,” Filene said.

Monuments As A 'Tattoo On Our Collective Social Body'

Countless national and local voices have called for the removal of confederate monuments.

RELATED: NAACP, Community Leaders Call For Removal Of Arizona Confederate Monuments

Janeen Bryant grew up driving up and down the East Coast where her mom would point out confederate monuments like a warning — a reminder that they were not always safe.

 “These monuments are representative of a tattoo on our collective social body and so we have chosen to mark ourselves and our collective bodies with these monuments,” Bryant, a museum consultant, said. “What does it mean for us as a nation to be covered with the marks of white supremacy?”

Arizona’s monuments still remain, but elsewhere in the country they’ve been taken down or covered up.

RELATED: ADOT Says Jefferson Davis Highway No Longer Exits; Confederate Monument Remains

There was no definitive answer after Tuesday’s panel, but there were a lot of ideas.

Louis Nelson, a professor at the University of Virginia, examined the a larger-than-life statute of confederate general Stonewall Jackson in Charlottesvillle months before it was the site of a white supremacist rally in August 2017.

“Is it possible to bring the museum to the object?” Nelson asked, acknowledging to the crowd his idea might be controversial.

“Is it possible for us to re-inscribe that square with those layers of history so that we understand how this material act is part of a racial acts, political acts, legislative acts that all worked collectively to build Jim Crow Charlottesville?”

Nelson unpacked the history of the area. It was once the site of McKee Row, historically black neighborhood seized from residents in 1914.

The statue was also erected in 1921, in the midst of a nationwide KKK revival.

“This monument quite explicitly an act of white supremacy,” Nelson said.

Jennifer Scott, director at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, implored museums to invite voices outside of curators and experts to help understand these monuments.

“How do we elevate other people’s re-contextualizations?” Scott asked.

The panel was standing room only and at times the conversation shifted to how museum professionals confront the biases in their own institutions.

“The anti racist movement within museums is very long standing, decades longstanding and extremely marginalized,” said Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell who works at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture and was in the audience.  

Overall, the presenters embraced the idea that museums reinforce ideas about who we are as a culture and they can be revolutionary.

“We absolutely have not done our job if people don’t feel uncomfortable,” said moderator Suzanne Seriff, who works in the Department of Anthropology at UT Austin.

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