Naming and Renaming

When I was in kindergarten and first grade, I attended an elementary school with an alcoholic beverage in its name. A few years later, a student group successfully pushed for a name change that would instead invoke nature’s bounty in local suburbia (nature which, incidentally, would be on its way out in favor of more development in a couple of decades). If my family had not moved, I may well have been part of the pro-name-change student group; it sounds like the kind of enrichment project I was doing in fourth grade.

I’m not sure it’s possible to rename a place without some opposition; after all, someone had some reason for coming up with the original name in the first place. Personally, I am not a big fan of renaming buildings to reflect corporate sponsorship. In other cases, the tensions in renaming come from questions around how we commemorate history.

In 2015, the Obama administration announced a name change to the tallest mountain in the United States, announcing that Alaska’s mountain known as Mount McKinley would henceforth be called Denali, like the national park encompassing it. The outcry came from elected officials as well as Donald Trump, while Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) praised the decision. Those who opposed the change seemed to ignore the fact that Denali was the original name of the mountain, given by the Athabascan people; the state of Alaska had been pushing for the name Denali for years; and monuments and a presidential library honor President McKinley, who had no real connection to Alaska, in his native state of Ohio.

Despite Trump’s 2015 tweet that he would change the name back to Mount McKinley if elected as president, current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke expressed his support for the name Denali at the beginning of the trip to Alaska that he began a few days ago.

Meanwhile, as cities in the south grapple with what to do with their Confederate statues and flags (leave them in place? Move them to a history museum?), names of buildings and streets are also under reconsideration even as far north as Connecticut. Earlier in 2017, Yale University made the decision to rename Calhoun College to honor the late Yale alumna Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and Navy rear admiral who (unlike John C. Calhoun) did not call slavery “a positive good” or “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

Student Dasia Moore’s article on Yale’s decision details the amount of thought and consideration that went into addressing the renaming question: “Beyond community engagement, the committee read through thousands of pages on the history and theory of public memory and renaming.” In the end, the committee developed a list of specific criteria for determining whether a name change is appropriate, with the university’s mission statement ultimately driving the discussion.

More local for me is Jefferson Davis Highway in Virginia. In northern Virginia, the city of Alexandria is prepared to rename its stretch of the highway, and an advisory group will in the near future seek proposals for new names.

Museums and parks will likely have to wrestle with these issues as contemporary eyes continue to give a longer look at names and monuments that do not reflect what are understood to be shared human values. There will be proposed name changes to parks and landmarks, and museums may well be providing a new and nuanced home to the statues that once stood on pedestals outside of city halls. Like Yale University made sure to do, I am hopeful that the organizations and agencies entrusted with these changes will look to their missions as they make these decisions.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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