Past and Present: Public Monuments

Last week the Centre College History Program hosted the first of three events this autumn featuring members of our program and colleagues invited from other programs to discuss large historical questions with our students. We chose as our first topic the question of what roles public monuments play in society and how different communities have historically interacted with these objects. This discussion is most directly informed by the ongoing discussion in the United States about the prevalence of monuments to the Confederacy in public spaces, particularly in the wake of events at Charlottesville, Virginia at the end of this past summer.

Amy Frederick, of Art History, opened the conversation by briefly sharing how art historians typically interact with such monuments generally, and she parsed out her own reactions to the tearing down of Confederate monuments in the last few months. The issue is of course deeply complicated; although art historians have conflicted feelings about art being destroyed, the extent to which these statues should be considered “art” is a live question, especially as so many of the statues and other monuments currently causing controversy were actually mass produced and installed decades after the end of the American Civil War.

Stephen Dove shared two fascinating examples of how communities in central America have handled issues of potentially divisive monuments in the past. In Martinique, unknown individuals decapitated the head of a statue honoring Martinique native Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon and supporter of resuming French participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade. The question of what to do with the statue, which had also been streaked with red paint, found an intriguing and nuanced answer: ultimately, Martiniquais chose to do nothing. Now you can visit the headless, spattered statue of Empress Josephine and make your own interpretations.

Secondly, Stephen discussed a monument in Havana, Cuba commemorating the passing of the sailors on the USS Maine, an American naval ship at the center of a famously questionable assertion of casus belli for American participation in what subsequently became known as the Spanish-American War. In the early twentieth century, when Batista’s Cuba counted itself as a close ally of the United States, the Cuban government erected the monument complete with an eagle at top and a plaque mourning the sailors’ passing. The Cuban Revolution saw the monument subjected to some rough treatment, with the eagle a notable casualty; however, when the dust had settled, the monument remained, with a new plaque courtesy of the Castro government. It now reads “To the victims of the Maine who were sacrificed by the imperialist voracity and their desire to gain control of the island of Cuba, February 1898 – February 1961.”

Amos Tubb continued this theme of a community choosing to interpret imposed monuments in their own way, sharing the origins of Charing Cross, a seventy foot tall cross erected by King Edward I in 1291-1294 to commemorate the passing of his wife, Eleanor of Castile. This imposing construction of publicly demonstrated state power soon became a widely recognized common point for trading and other raucous activities. It remained so for hundreds of years. Amos pointed out that Charing Cross was an interesting example of how monuments erected outside, in the eyes of the public, could attract different uses than monuments housed within specific buildings such as churches. Once subjected to the public, the public will have its way, regardless of the intent of those building the monument in the first place. Let’s just say that if you want to know what the public DID at Charing Cross, you will need to ask Dr. Tubb.

These brief introductions of ideas gave way to a broader discussion driven by student questions and comments. This discussion returned to the issue of monuments in our society today, and what to do about them, specifically monuments in our community and in the surrounding areas which honor the confederacy.  Students in the audience were clearly engaged with the material–they recognized that tearing these statues down without any reflection or leaving them up without comment leaves future generations without any sense that in 2017 these statues were contentious.  One student smartly remarked that it removes future Centre students from the conversation.

The Takeaway: Our current discussions about monuments argue that there are only two options: take them down or leave them up.  The reality is that throughout history people have come up with many more options than the two presented to us today.

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