Calls for the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces continues at a steady clip. Yesterday, the president of the University of Texas at Austin decided to remove a monument to Jefferson Davis, while leaving two monuments to Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston in place. Last night, after a public forum, two committees for the New Orleans city council voted to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and one commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place. Confederate monuments continue to be vandalized as well.
Public historians and other commentators in this ongoing debate have called for the contextualization of monuments regardless of whether they are moved or remain in place. The president of the University of Texas stated that all of the Confederate monuments on campus will be properly interpreted for the benefit of the community and future visitors to campus. On more than one occasion I have suggested that contextualization is a viable way forward. I still believe this, but how to move forward is not so clear.
First and foremost, public historians need to explain what contextualization actually entails. Why should such a move assuage the concerns of the most outspoken critics and defenders? No one to my knowledge has offered such an explanation. Such language might be familiar to folks in the public history community, but it likely means very little to the stakeholders involved in these debates and the broader community.
But even before we get to this point, we might want to consider whether the stakeholders are even interested in contextualization. I have my doubts. Consider the forum last night in New Orleans. I don’t get the sense that any of these people, whether they support removal or not, are interested in considering the benefits of interpreting monuments through signage or some other means. That is not intended as a criticism.
Those in support of removal are offended by the sight and placement of these monuments. No amount of signage and context is going to change that. Their defenders will likely take little interest in signage since it alters the landscape from a site of veneration to little more than a remnant of an irrelevant and/or idiosyncratic past.
The forum that took place last night in New Orleans was about living memory, family, community identity, politics and heritage. Again, we need to hear more about how contextualization addresses concerns expressed in this narrative.
It comes down to the question of what we hope signage or some other form of interpretation will do for communities that are divided over the presence of Confederate monuments in their public spaces.