Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"All Monuments Must Fall"

In 1980 Howard Zinn wrote The People's History of the United States. It was a seminal attempt of telling history from the perspective of the people and not from the prevailing perspective of the rulers and their wars. It was a radical departure from traditional history and it took a deep bite out of the official image of the US as an exceptional nation. According to Zinn American history is to a large extent the exploitation of the majority by an elite minority, something one could easily say about just any other nation as well (audio of Zinn). Still, in 2017 powerful forces are at work at a revisionist view to "restore" the "glory" and the old way of telling history. Confederate monuments and monuments in general have become a lightning rod for the different ways of seeing history. There seems to be little middle ground.
People  as heroes
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. (Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train)
Just when everybody thought that Baltimore had solved its monument crisis, rather late but elegantly, the debate came right back. First by people trying to expand the questions to Christopher Columbus statues and other monuments and then with a bang when the Maryland Historic Trust (MHT), a State agency, determined that Baltimore City didn't have the authority to remove the monuments in the first place (at least the Confederate ones). Can the perspective of a people's history preclude nuances? Does it allow the many views different regions, countries and cultures have been struggling with for some time, not necessarily with one simple "right" answer?

Is the MHT letter an ideologically charged curve-ball thrown the Republican Governor to the Democratic Mayor, or is there more to it?

The MHT is, indeed, the overseeing agency for historic preservation and has, at other times been a place of hope when local preservation was in the way of powerful developers.
Smashed Columbus Obelisque
text panel

Which gets us to point of "historic value": Things that are over 50 years old can qualify as historic and may deserve protection based on historic value, not necessarily meaning.  The distinction becomes immediately clear when one talks about historic buildings, especially if they are really old and by today's standards considered artful. For example, the "Monument Avenue" in Richmond, full of Confederate monuments (plus one fig-leaf African American sports hero) is also lined by splendid buildings erected by white supremacists and wealthy folks who, no doubt, earned their riches on the backs of slaves or black people in general. While some suggested that all those monuments should come down, denuding Richmond's most famous street, very few people would suggest tearing the buildings down. In reality the whole avenue is a national historic landmark  and per the U.S. Park Service "the nation's only grand residential boulevard with monuments of its scale surviving almost unaltered to present day."

Nobody really suggests tearing down the remainders of the Colosseum in Rome down, even though it was the place of terrible spectacles in which slaves and conquered suppressed people were subjected to horrifying games for no other purpose than demonstrating unmitigated power by the dictators in charge of the Roman empire.

These historic argument is also being made when it comes to the oldest US Columbus statue, the one that was partially smashed in Baltimore near Herring Run park. The obelisk is believed to be the first monument for the explorer in the country and was originally erected in 1792 by Frenchman Chevalier d’Anemours on his own estate located at what is now the intersection of Harford Road and North Avenue where the District Court building now stands. According to SUN records, the monument was moved to its current location  in 1963 and re-dedicated by then Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin. A monument that is 225 years old is pretty old by American standards and certainly deserves to be considered a historic artifact, no matter what opinions one might have about Columbus.

No doubt, the discussion about monuments, their meaning and their impact on today's people is a complex subject, and the historic value is only one aspect among many others. The insight that the prevailing view of history books, museums and monumental expressions in architecture and statues is largely one of white supremacy and western culture is not exactly new. But it has entered the roam of broader consciousness only very recently, especially in the US, which likes to cloak itself in its exceptionalism. Similar debates, though, are raging in other countries as well, even in those who went trough long stages of repentance and ruminations about their own terrible history, such as Germany. The almost complete new Stadt-Schloss in Berlin, a replica of what the East German communists blew up on purpose long after WWII was over, for example, is once again subject to dramatic debate. The exhibits are supposed to go into it next year when the much debated reconstruction is complete. Can artefacts looted in conjunction with imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy be shown in this symbol of "old power"?. That debate there is just as hot as the one here about Columbus, Confederate monuments or the Taney statue.
Waiting for a new use: Taney pedestal Washington Square

A very rich compendium of all possible aspects of these aspects has been crowd sourced and compiled by a Baltimore group including MICA professor George Ciscle. The extensive "syllabus" is titled "All Monuments Must Fall". It is grouped into discussion papers under the following sections (I note always only one representative title, but there are many more):
  • Monumental Theory ("Whose culture is it anyway?"), 
  • Monuments and Nationalism, (“Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form”), 
  • Confederate Monuments, (“Go ahead, topple the monuments. All of them,”), 
  • World Views and Parallels, ("Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong"), 
  • Indigenous Monuments and Memorials, (“Native American Students Fight to Remove Colonial Imagery from University of New Mexico,”), 
  • Queering the Monument, ("“The Pink Triangle and Political Consciousness: Gays, Lesbians, and the Memory of Nazi Persecution”), 
  • Rhodes​ ​Must​ ​Fall/​ ​Fees​ ​Must​ ​Fall/Decolonize​ ​the​ ​Curriculum:​ ​South​ ​Africa, (“The Fall of Rhodes: The Removal of a Sculpture from the University of Cape Town”),  
  • French​ ​Revolution, (“The Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde”), 
  • Situationism, (“Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography”), 
  • Monumental Histories, (“Lights, Camera, Iconoclasm: How Do Monuments Die and Live to Tell about It?”), ​
  • Monuments​ ​Fall​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Soviet​ ​Bloc, (“Public Monuments in Changing Societies”), 
  • African American Monuments, ("Slavery and Its Memory in Public Monuments"), ​
  • European​ ​and​ ​U.K.​ ​Contexts,  (London’s “Murder Mile” of imperialist statues"), 
  • Central/South​ ​Asian​ ​Contexts, (“The Abuse of History: A Study of the White Papers on Ayodhya,”), ​Middle​ ​Eastern​ ​/​ ​
  • North​ ​African​ ​/​ ​Iraqi​ ​Contexts, (“Egyptian Protesters Destroy Tahrir Square Monument Erected by Interim Government”), ​
  • Artist’s​ ​Projects,​ ​Ephemeral​ ​Memorials,​ ​and​ ​Anti-Memorials (“an ongoing series of contributory audioscapes where social movements started and changed history”).
The Baltimore D-center (D for design) will host a design conversation "Public Monuments - Can Public Monuments Be More Than Symbols of Power?" coming Tuesday at 6:30pm at the Wind-Up Space on North Avenue. Registration and details here
Toppled Lee in Durham

As the role, purpose, and value of public monuments continues to be subject of public dispute, D Center’s November conversation offers a public forum to consider the variety of forces that support or dismember civic monuments. 
Baltimore “monument”debates include memorializing the discovering of New America, representations of the South’s Civil War ambitions, and the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain.
There is a broad net of personal accounts, journalism, academic reports, and syllabi we can draw upon to help us frame this discussion on who are the caretakers of public spaces. 
As the role, purpose, and value of public monuments continues to be debated, D Center’s November conversation offers a public forum to consider the variety of infrastructures that support or dismember civic monuments. 
The monuments of the people: Pennsylvania Avenue
Baltimore “monument”debates include memorializing the discovering of New America, representations of the South’s Civil War ambitions, and the demolition of the McKeldin Fountain.

As food for thought in the monument debate and the current reflections about the role of the US in the world, here another quote by Howard Zinn in which he justified his one-sided view of a People's History   
My history... describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chávez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain, who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism
 Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

"Public Monuments - Can Public Monuments Be More Than Symbols of Power?" coming Tuesday at 6:30pm at the Wind-Up Space on North Avenue. Registration and details here.

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