Before Campus Visit, Erin L. Thompson Says Statues Reveal “a Whole Lot” About America
By Laura Cech
Photo by Eze Amos/Getty Images
From 1776 when colonists beheaded a statue of King George III to last month when the Charlottesville, Va. statue of Robert E. Lee was melted, monuments have been central in fiery national debates in America.
That is, when they’re not being ignored, says Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and author of the University of Maryland’s 2023-24 First Year Book, “Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments.”
In the 2022 book, Thompson digs into the overlooked history of some of the most prominent monuments in America and invites readers to reflect on how we decide what monuments should be built and how we decide they should be removed.
The topic came to the fore with the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally to stop the removal of the Lee statue, which ended with the death of a counterprotester and dozens of injuries, as well as the national reckoning on race in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020. On our own campus, the addition of Frederick Douglass Square on Hornbake Plaza, along with recent building namings and renamings, reflect the same questions of whose names and likenesses should be publicly honored.
Each year since 1993, the First Year Book program selects a book, available for free for all students, faculty and staff to promote a sense of community and discussions in classes and beyond about the world around us.
In advance of Thompson’s visit to campus on Nov. 7, she talked about what makes monuments so important and revealing about America’s past, present and future.
How did you start studying the deliberate destruction of art?
Almost any time power changes or political systems change, new monuments go up to inspire people to new political, social or cultural goals. It's a little weird actually that in the U.S. we haven't seen more monuments come down. I got interested in what has kept this set of monuments up for so long and what's changing now.
It may seem like a little thing—a couple of hunks of bronze and stone, but it's a little thing that reveals a whole lot about our life in America today and in the future.
Are people still as concerned as they were after Floyd’s death about who we memorialize?
I think people are still interested, but there's not the same urgency as there was in the summer of 2020. There also have been fewer removals because it's gotten legally and politically harder. However, I think there is a greater openness to modifying monuments. So maybe we aren't seeing so many come down, but we're seeing a lot of signage go up, a lot of artworks that are added to monuments to challenge them. And there are always new monuments going up. We’re seeing a much more diverse set of honoraries that reflects much better what America actually looks like.
What creates a tipping point leading to a previously acceptable statue being deemed unacceptable and removed? Who should decide what statues go up, and which ones are torn down?
You'd think it'd be pretty obvious when the majority of the community decides the monument doesn't reflect their values or it's actively painful to them. But there are many monuments held in place by state legislatures. An individual community could agree that a particular monument is hateful, for decades with nothing happening, which was the case with the Birmingham, Alabama monument.
Most of our laws are about putting up monuments and we haven't really thought about the question of how they come down. In the last few years, municipalities have proven more willing to hear that question, but then there are questions of how you settle it. Should it be a vote from everyone in the community? Should it be left up to a panel of experts? City council? The mayor? This is all very unsettled in a way that's very exciting to me as a lawyer.
What do you hope students take away from the book?
I hope students are encouraged to make change in their own communities. There are tens of thousands of public monuments across the U.S. Very few of them have ever received any attention by an historian, whether professional or amateur. I think sometimes you dig into a monument and you find some hateful history. Sometimes you dig into its history and you find inspiration and the story of a community coming together. I think it's worth doing in any case.
And I think that's what needs to happen across America for our monuments to be truly public: Something that a community thinks about and decides, “I want this here” or “I don't.”
Somebody needs to pay attention, and it can be students.
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