I know that for some of my historian and public historian friends watching the city of New Orleans take down its Civil War/Reconstruction era monuments was not easy to watch. Our tendency is to treat monuments as artifacts and the broader landscape as an opportunity to learn about how communities remember their collective past. As someone who has used monuments extensively over the years I sympathize with this position.
We would rather see interpretive markers placed around the monument or even allow for additional monuments to be placed in close proximity to reflect a changing community – anything to maintain the physical object.
But in doing so we have failed to appreciate that what took place in New Orleans and what is taking place in other communities is part of an organic process that can be traced back to the dedication of these monuments.
This is ultimately part of the story that we as public historians and educators need to figure out how to tell and there is no better place to do it than at the sites themselves. I can easily envision a tour of the sites of the monuments that just came down in New Orleans. We can make use of any number of new technologies that can help us to envision the former monuments, especially GPS and apps that provide additional context, including images and sound.
But it is the questions that we can engage our audiences around that will really matter. The absence of a monument may help us even more to better understand how key events and change in the surrounding community led to its removal. Again, this is as much a part of the story as the work that went into erecting these monuments.
In the case of New Orleans we can have our students compare Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s powerful speech that he delivered while the Lee Monument was coming down on Thursday with some of the original monument dedication addresses. It is also an opportunity to explore the role of local activism in shaping Civil War memory as was the case with Take Em Down NOLA. What else?
This is not a setback for public historians, but an opportunity. Let’s get to work.