If in discussing racist monuments, you have ever said- “Put them in a museum!”
Hi! 👋🏻 Museum worker here. And… HARD PASS.
Museums are working with limited capacity – both in terms of physical space and resources for conservation of the objects they care for. They also tell a story. Each item a museum holds in its collection has to be relevant to the mission and contribute to that story, and the museum has to have the ability to care for the item. So, from a logistical standpoint, re-homing these monuments en masse to museums doesn’t make sense.
But put a pin in that and assume that museums have unlimited resources and are interested in re-homing and contextualizing these statues. Properly contextualizing these monuments is extremely difficult. They are SO large and SO problematic. Over and over, communities have tried adding plaques and signs that explain the climate that produced these statues, who commissioned and created them, what story the tell and what story they don’t. Over and over, members of these communities have said that this isn’t enough. And they are right. Placing one small sign by one huge monument STILL centers the narrative of the monument. It STILL gives the monument the louder voice. The only attempts at annotation which have even come close to giving proper voice to the oppressed are the ones being done by the public, as seen in the image of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, VA. (📷 Image courtesy of Willie Graham)
More importantly, these monuments take up valuable space – physically and emotionally. The resources required to conserve and contextualize them could be better spent uplifting the voices and sharing the experience of those they sought to dehumanize and devalue. Placing priority on their preservation, no matter how well intentioned the attempt to tell a fuller story, perpetuates the inequities the represent. We need to reallocate our resources to the history which these monuments have attempted to silence.
We have to stop wasting out time and attention on racist monuments. They don’t belong in our public spaces, and they don’t belong in our museums either. Museums aren’t just a repository for junk. And that is essentially what these are, junk history that was once presented as true. We know better, and we have to do better.