Friday, January 15, 2016

Rewriting Baltimore's History? About Monuments and Museums

Tearing down Saddam Hussein's statue was a pivotal moment in the history of Iraq. Hitler's statues didn't survive the end of World War by more than days, not so much because liberated Germans toppled them but because the Allies blew them up.
Jackson and Lee (photo: Baltimore Brew)

In Baltimore in 2016 we still fight the Civil War 150 years later which makes it less surprising that we are still in the middle of civil rights struggles more than 50 years after the landmark legislation passed. So it happens that today's SUN reports about the votes of Baltimore's Monument Commission and about the problems of the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in the same issue.

The legendary Maryland law professor Larry Gibson argued for relocating at least two statues celebrating figures that have a strong legacy of racism:
Gibson [..] argued that Baltimore has a disproportionate number of monuments to the Confederacy on its public property. He said that more than twice as many Marylanders fought for the Union as the Confederacy during the Civil War, but the city has only one public monument to the Union.
The Lewis museum has had 30,000 visitors in one year, by comparison, the BMA had over 200,000.
Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture

None of the three arts and entertainment districts in the city is especially devoted to African American art and entertainment even though the Bromo District ends right where Pennsylvania Avenue begins, once Baltimore's premier African American entertainment district. On the Avenue the once famous Royal Theater has been demolished with only a canopy standing while Robert Lee and Stonewall Jackson keep riding their horses almost in front of the BMA (which has nothing to do with their placement).  One of the most famous cultural products by an African American in 2015 is Ta Nahesi Coates' book Between the World an Me. Coates writes about his youth in Baltimore, he lived here until recently.
Roger B. Taney Monument on Mount Vernon Place

Such is the state of affairs in Baltimore, that racial tension can set parts of the city on fire. certainly there isn't the distance needed to debate art in the calm scholarly manner preferred by art historians. Nor can monuments be discussed solely in the context of urban design which thrives from the layering of styles, cultures and expressions that generations of people piled up in that big jumble we call cities.

The views reflected in the commission nicely mirror the public discussion. Most residents and visitors just see the monuments as art in the abstract way as sculptures of  people on a horse or a guy sitting on a pedestal, items that are always there just like a chair at the dining table or the pictures on the wall at home. One forgets about any meaning and just sees it as decoration. Others see them a pieces of art, others as witnesses of history.

But if you are a member of the community which these historic figures represented in the sculptures had set out to actively suppress, then you can't afford this disengaged view. Neither can anybody who becomes aware, as I did one day some years ago when leisurely walking by, I studied in more detail who the folks on the horse actually were.
What is left of the Royal Theater

Even then, there could be good arguments for leaving monuments in the places where they sat for a long time; just as we expect them to be in Rome, Paris or London, regardless how ruthless those depicted tyrants once were.

Maybe that is preferable to the purged state of Berlin where big efforts were made to cleanse the place of nationalistic statues way beyond those of Hitler. The discussion itself is healthy. More importantly, though, there should be new and additional public art celebrating those cultures of which we see much too little.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
Edited by Ben Groff, JD

Links:

SUN article about the Monument Commission

Ed Gunts in the Baltimore Brew about the work of the Monuments Commission (Sept./2015)

SUN article about the Reginald Lewis Museum and resigning Director Skipp Sanders