Episode 82

82. Statues and Museums

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About this Episode

In the wake of the racist murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent 17th Century slave trader. Protesters rolled the statue through the street and pushed it into Bristol Harbor — the same harbor where Colston’s Royal African Company ships that forcibly carried 80,000 people from Africa to the Americas used to dock.

In this episode, we examine the relationship of statues and museums. Why do so many call for statues of people like Colston to end up in a museum instead of at the bottom of a harbor? Looking at examples from Dr. Lyra Montero’s Washington's Next! project in the United States, American Hall of Honor museums for college football teams, and statues of Lenin and Stalin in Eastern Europe, we discuss the town-square-to-museum pipeline for statues.

Image: CC Keir Gravil - Black Lives Matter Protest, Bristol, UK

Topics and Notes

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Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 82. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

The statue appeared in 2011 on the path of my daily commute to the University of Florida, where I was a student.

It was a statue of a football player named Tim Tebow, and the strange thing about it was that Tim Tebow was still around. In fact, it was just a few months after he graduated, and it was commemorating events, like touchdowns, that I remembered. I remembered seeing him around campus, and now I was looking at him as a statue.

But it wasn’t just a statue. Behind the statue was the entrance to a Hall of Honor which featured football trophies.

But the space was not just a room with trophies, it was a story about the football program where the trophies were an inevitable consequence. In short, it looked like a museum. Reader rails and old pictures of the early days of the program were presented alongside pigskin footballs from the 1930s with good lighting.

But this wasn’t just at one university. All across the football conference, these trophy rooms looked like museum spaces.

At Florida State University, just a few hours away, the trophy room begins with artifacts from and descriptions of the Seminole Nation — even though these are tellingly light on the details. The point was to tie the athletic program’s success with that of historical figures fighting a US invasion. It is all done very deftly — one minute you’re looking at a map of what is now Florida drawn by a US general, and the next, you are looking at a tattered football jersey, the next bronze statue of the story’s heroes. There’s a bridge between statues and museums — they feed into each other.

So why do athletic programs adopt statues and museum-like spaces? Because they want to sell us a selective account presented as a neutral archive of the past.

[Audio of Edward Colston Crashing Down]

Last week in Bristol’s The Centre, Black Lives Matter UK protesters tore down a statue of Edward Colston, a prominent 17th Century slave trader.

[Audio of Edward Colston Rolling Through the Streets of Bristol]

Protesters rolled the statue through the street and pushed it into Bristol Harbor. The same harbor that Colston’s Royal African Company ships that forcibly carried 80,000 people from Africa to the Americas used to dock.

Before it was thrown in the harbor, the statue of Colston had been standing in the center of town since 1895. And it wasn’t as if the source of Colston’s wealth was just discovered last week.

Lyra Monteiro: The idea of how do we make visible, for instance, the enslaved people who are invisible at all of these sites of memory that were about white supremacy when they were created. And now they still are, but we don't talk about that. How do we make that visible? You know? That's something that I've been, I've been playing around with for a long time.

This is Dr. Lyra Monteiro, professor of history at Rutgers University Newark and cofounder of the Museum Onsite and the creator of Washington's Next!.

In our interview for episode 77 of this show, she explains — and answers — one of the arguments against taking down white supremacists statues in the context of the United States.

Lyra Monteiro: The slippery slope argument. And the people who make this argument tend not to be the ones who are like. Overtly gung ho and like, you know, it's our Southern heritage to honor Robert E. Lee. It's not those folks. It's more the people who are historians. Sometimes our historians, sometimes like museum folks. The argument that they make is that, well, yes, it's not good that there is a statue to Robert E. Lee. But the thing is if we take him down (and obviously using him to stand up for all the Confederate statues) if we take him down, well then where are we going to stop? Because the reason why he's not appropriate for us to honor and public spaces because of slavery. Well, there are other slave owners that we honor in public space, and of course the biggest ones there are George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And of course, there's no way in hell we're going to get rid of those statues. Right? What we're going to take down the Washington monument? I don't think so. The idea is it's a slippery slope that we're setting up. If we are starting to tumble down, the minute that we start taking down the statues of people who supported and promoted slavery.

Monteiro’s answer to the slippery slope argument is yes, Washington’s Next.

Lyra Monteiro: The tone of voice in which I hear the slippery slope argument from scholars and from museum practitioners is, and from, you know, public parks officials is less one of panic and concern about attacking that legacy and much more one of, “Well, that's just silly! Obviously we wouldn't do that.”

Dr Sadiah Qureshi, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham writes in _Flux: Parian Unpacked_ about toppling statues, “critics accused protesters of wanting to ‘rewrite’ history. Yet... fail to engage with what is really at stake... namely identifying, acknowledging and removing endemic structural problems of racism in reparative form”

A suggestion offered by more than a few people is museums. Why not put the statues of problematic people in museums? Is the bottom of the harbor really the right place for a statue of Colston?

Of course, these questions tend to ignore that the bottom of the ocean is the final resting place for hundreds of actual people thrown overboard from Colston’s ships because they were deemed a poor investment for Colston’s company.

On Museum Archipelago, we’ve investigated what various Eastern European countries are doing with old statues of dictators like Lenin and Stalin.

Monika Bernotas, who was interviewed on episode 5 of this show, describes how her family’s native Lithuania removed it’s ubiquitous Soviet statues from city squares all across the country. The removals were events that helped build the young nation, but once the statues were removed from their original locations, no one knew what to do with them.

Many of them ended up at something called Grūtas Park — a kind of half-theme park that includes a massive statue garden. The statues are presented simply and somewhat randomly — each has a little description of the city and square where that statue used to stand. Many Lithuanians and the Lithuanian government have criticized the uncritical approach to the park’s layout. Visitors are free to do whatever they want.

Monika Bernotas: Once you get into the actual statue walk, it’s kind of funny because you can do whatever you want. So like, climbing on top of Lenin and Stalin, picking their nose, patting them on the head, doing whatever you want. But I like to think that I have some sort of connection, some sort of understanding, that these images might have been both scary and inspirational at different times in somebody’s life. For me, they’ve been images that were bad. When I was going up I always knew that Lenin’s face that Stalin’s face, these were the faces of terror that drove my grandparents out of Lithuania. But to be able to interact with them on this very humorous level is really interesting.

The situation at Bulgaria’s Museum of Socialist Art in Sofia is somewhat similar. The outdoor sculpture garden is littered with statues commemorating Soviet power placed wherever there is room.

I’ve visited many times and I’m never quite sure how to react. There’s a lot of power in deliberately taking these statues out of the context they were made for. What once may have been an imposing statue underscoring who’s in charge in a public square is now gesticulating impotently at a rose bush.

In Eastern Europe, the statues of Lenin and Stalin were erected during the Communist times, and were swiftly removed when the system fell. In the West, statues erected more than 100 years ago still stand without context.

Washington’s Next because the money he made from owning, working, and selling people isn’t a footnote -- it is the reason he was the first president.

Even at the Museums of Bristol website, Colston is identified as a “revered philanthropist / reviled slave trader”, in that order, as if the money he gave away to the city of Bristol wasn’t violently extracted from the people he enslaved.

It’s not a sufficient answer to put these statues in a museum. I don’t know if there’s enough museum space for all the Confederate monuments in the American South or enough museum space for all the statues of King Leopold in Belgium. But more importantly, the political exercise in selective remembrance neatly packaged as an unbiased archive that statues represent is the same exercise that museums represent.

Museums and statues are bridged together -- many of these statues are right in front of the museum entrances, priming the visitor for what they can expect to find inside.

Statues and museums share a centuries-long history of supporting white supremacist, colonialist, racist ideologies and helping them flourish, and providing the evidence for them and undergirding them through their placement, through their air of authority, and through their supposed neutrality.

The statues of American football players at American universities helps me think about this because the stakes are so low: the rivalry is clear. “Our football team has heroes and a long legacy.” And it is telling that the two tools that were employed make that point are statues and museums.