Exhibiting Racism: How should museums contextualise Confederate monuments?

The history of the United States is inextricably woven together with white supremacy, slavery, and racism. The foundations of my home country cannot be separated from these realities. Our economic rise, our growth, our culture, and our politics were all borne out of a time and place when black men, women, and children were enslaved. Nations do not like to admit their shortcomings; their failings; their moral repugnancy. It interferes with nationalist narratives which celebrate and exalt that which is deemed worthy and good. All done while simultaneously sweeping the more distasteful elements under the rug.

Museums and heritage sites have been complicit in perpetuating these carefully edited narratives since their inception. It has only been relatively recently (in the past thirty or so years) that the sector has begun to look at itself more reflexively and question both the conscious and unconscious bias of its work.

Events over the past two weeks stemming from the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, have prompted me to think much more about the role museums and heritage sites have with regards to telling the full story of race in the United States. There have been calls by members of the public, journalists, and politicians to remove Confederate monuments and place them in museums where they can best be contextualised historically as instruments of white supremacy erected during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights Movement. I myself have advocated for accessioning a small number of these statues into museum collections for this reason.

To be clear, I do not believe in preserving every monument and I wholly support their removal and, if so, destruction. Unlike some advocates of preservation, I do not believe that history is erased in doing so. Memory of their existence is assured through documentary evidence: photographs, film, articles, papers related to their commission, purchase, and erection. We cannot erase this chapter from our history books through the removal of these monuments alone.

Those advocating for the removal of these statues to museums believe that a fuller narrative of what they represent can be developed and shared through their display. I would tend to agree with this viewpoint. That being said, I am highly conscious of the fact that some of the journalists who have supported similar measures are white art critics and I myself am a white museologist. Our privileged world view and our specific area of training leads us toward the idea that museums can best do this work.

The destruction of a Confederate statue in Durham, North Carolina by anti-racism activists excited me about the possibility of one day seeing the crumpled form of the Confederate soldier in a museum gallery. I envisioned contextualising interpretation detailing its erection during the Jim Crow era juxtaposed against interpretation of the circumstances of its destruction by protesters. Perhaps a panel would read: through its toppling, the statue was transformed from a symbol of white supremacy and hatred to a symbol of the triumph of tolerance, diversity, and equality.

This potential vision of a future museum gallery is not without its problems. Recently, I read an excellent blog post on the Brown Girls Museum Blog entitled “The Nation We Make Together (Part I)” which forced me to re-examine my own take on potential displays of these objects. In it, the author, Ravon Ruffin, details how museums, even today, display blackness in the context of an overall white narrative. For black visitors, this consistent juxtaposition can have clear damaging effects:

To consistently see ourselves as enslaved or as historical markers of segregation, for example, perpetuates our existence as only knowable in opposition to whiteness…Our presence has been obscured and erased from our cultural institutions for so long, and through years of trauma, that we’ve similarly come to understand ourselves in this opposition to whiteness. We don’t always recognize the toll this work of representation takes, or the ways by which we stop seeing ourselves for our full humanity in the process.

While I continue to believe that museums are places in which topics such as race can and should be explored, Ruffin’s post illustrates an important truth. The ways in which we tell stories of race can have unintended consequences on our visitors. While striving for satisfying stories in which we can highlight progress and triumphs over racism, we overlook the wealth and necessity of telling human stories of blackness outside of the accepted national narrative, a narrative constructed and perpetuated by white people.

So what might this mean for museums who accession these Confederate statues? In reality, discussion goes far beyond these monuments and to the heart of how our institutions deal with marginalised peoples. Ruffin suggests:

This looks like abandoning linear progress narratives that arc so as to always have a “happy ending,” or the inclusion of marginalized groups beyond that one particular holiday or specialized program. This self interrogation relieves whiteness, and therefore our institutions, of its perceived neutrality. Whiteness is not the basis of my existence.

For museums wishing to contextualise the history of these statues it is essential that we engage with these ideas. We must think about the historic role of museums in collecting and displaying a national narrative from white perspectives. We need to consider not only how we might historically contextualise a Confederate statue, we need to look throughout our organisation at how we enhance, perpetuate, reject, or criticise the established narrative arc of history. This involves not only a certain measure of institutional reflexive practice but requires us to involve marginalised groups in truly meaningful ways in the process and not, as Ruffin points, out only for a brief duration.

I believe that it is incredibly important that those of us in the museological community advocating for museums to become the repositories of these difficult objects to listen to, engage with, and amplify the voices of those most directly affected by their continued existence and display. We must interrogate ourselves and the narratives we propose to perpetuate through our exhibitions and programmes, and we must continue to forge a better, stronger, more fully human historical narrative that takes into account the good, the bad, and the ugly of our national history.

Image Credit: Rodney Dunning