Museums and Memorials

Do you like to read? Do you love to be surrounded by books, reread old favorites, discover new ones? Maybe you love to spend time at the public library, or with your own personal book collection.

Perhaps you will never forget a few favorite lines from a couple of favorite books, and maybe you have some of these quotations on bumper stickers or hanging on your wall.

But you don’t have every word of every book displayed in a place of prominence as an inspiring quote.

In a similar vein, you may be passionate about history and enjoy seeing artifacts from the past. But not every interesting relic from history deserves to be put on a pedestal.

Over the last few weeks, momentum for taking Confederate statues down from places of honor has reached a crescendo, and people throughout the United States (and yes, there is Confederate statuary in states far-flung from the actual region that seceded) are discussing the differences between memorials and museums. The statues of Lee, Davis, and others that currently tower over parks and sit in front of courthouses could instead join the collections of museums with a relevant content area. They would not need to be on display at all times. Nor would their interpretive use be limited to exhibits on the Civil War; they are also curiosities from the later eras in which most of said statues were commissioned and erected.

The reasons for the recent removal of several statues and the active debate on many others have been articulated in a number of speeches and articles – far too many writings to be posted here. So instead I’ll just post a few favorite lines.

“…removing — or moving — Confederate monuments is not historical erasure. The same logic could have been used to justify maintaining, after 1964, signs that identified ‘Negro water fountains,’ ‘Colored waiting room,’ and the other markers of Southern segregation.”

-W. Fitzhugh Brundage, in the article “I’ve studied the history of Confederate memorials. Here’s what to do about them” published on

“Effective museum interpretation would not stop there. It would address the reoccurring questions surrounding this symbol. Why do people find the flag offensive? Why are other people so attached to the flag? Why do some people who embrace the fullness of Southern pride, including the Confederate flag, not see themselves as racists?”

-Public historian Aleia Brown in a 2015 Slate article which outlines what museums would need to do in order to provide the proper context for such objects – and argues that museums so far have not proven themselves up to the task

“Sometimes the Rebel battle flag and the bronze generals on horseback stand for badass rebellion and hell-raisin’. Sometimes they stand for a genteel and deliberately vague conception of ‘heritage and history,’ all too perfectly captured in the noxious and seductive ‘Gone With the Wind,’ a film that overwrote actual history for several generations of white Americans. Sometimes they stand for overt and vicious racism.”

Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir on the symbolism contained in Confederate memorials

“In a public place, if it is offensive and people are taking issue with it, let’s move it. Let’s put it somewhere where historically it fits with the area around it so you can have people come to see it, who want to understand that history and that individual.”

-Bertram Hayes-Davis, great-great-grandson of Jefferson Davis, quoted in a CNN article

“2nd Place Participant”

-A banner that Rebecca McHood added to a Confederate monument in Phoenix, highlighting the cognitive dissonance that must be experienced by those who disparage participation trophies but glorify the Confederacy

“These Confederate monuments are historically significant and essential to understanding a critical period of our nation’s history. Just as many of them do not reflect, and are in fact abhorrent to, our values as a diverse and inclusive nation. We cannot and should not erase our history. But we also want our public monuments, on public land and supported by public funding, to uphold our public values.”

Statement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation


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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