Monuments and the Role of the Public Historian

Historical monuments are built to symbolize a single, or two-dimensional narrative of history. They are created to propagate a version of history that may be true or not. In many cases, historical statues are created to enhance a historical mythos. To paraphrase a favorite late comedian of mine, they are “symbols for the symbol minded.” That being said, how are we to address the daunting question: “What should be do with historical monuments if they’re removed?” Or more simply, “what are we to do with historical monuments?” As public historians it is our duty to contextualize all history and artifacts, providing perspective and historical complexity to those who are willing to listen. Yet, because many of these monuments were designed to commemorate a singular narrative, the role of the public historian and the purpose of the monument may clash, especially within the public sphere.

This possibility slips into the realm of probability with the more controversial ones, such as the ones in the United States commemorating Confederate military and political figures. Many of those monuments were created to memorialize men that fought for the romanticized Lost Cause, and the culture of white supremacy that characterized late 19th century America.
Historical documentation shows us in numerous pieces such as the Confederate Constitution, Jefferson Davis’ presidential address, and many other Confederate leaders’ writings that the sole purpose of the Confederacy was the preservation of slavery. Therefore, public historians and the institutions that employ them would feel compelled to not only discuss the popular memory of these monuments, but also the uncomfortable reality behind their inception and the brutal truth behind the founding of the Confederacy. The merging of popular memory with academic history could become a messy affair in the middle of a public square. To quote everyone’s favorite fictional archeologist, “It belongs in a museum.” In the controlled environment of a museum could the monuments be maintained and proper contextualization be administered. In a museum, a monuments complete history could be address and discussed to a public more willing to listen to its complicated past.

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