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Pieces of history or ugly reminders of injustice? Historians discuss monuments’ meaning over time

SHARE Pieces of history or ugly reminders of injustice? Historians discuss monuments’ meaning over time

A statue of Chief Massasoit at Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City is pictured on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Are monuments of historical yet controversial figures and events symbols of injustice?

The highly debated question was one that a panel of historians and political scientists discussed Monday in a virtual Hinckley Forum, presented by the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and School for Cultural and Social Transformation.

In the wake of a new wave of social unrest, precipitated by racial injustice, statues and monuments are under intense scrutiny by the American people, said Lisa Blee, associate professor of history at Wake Forest University.

“This is a particularly important moment to turn our attention to monuments,” she said in her presentation. “Countless anti-racism protests over monuments have accelerated after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the end of May. And these events announce a really dramatic resurgence of struggle over memorialization to white supremacy.”

Blee is the co-author of “Monumental Mobility: The Memory Work of Massasoit” and was one of the invited speakers at the forum, along with co-author Jean O’Brien and Kevin Bruyneel, both of whom are professors of history.

While their discussion included the broader context of all controversial monuments, the group focused their remarks on the Massasoit statues that litter the country, including one in Provo and another outside the Utah Capitol.

History is a living thing in the minds of people — a “not finished story” — and the historians’ primary focus was explaining the complexities of historical perception and why monuments are viewed so differently by various groups of people.

The first Massasoit statue was erected in 1921 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. It was a representation of the purported way that Indians welcomed the pilgrims.

Today, it is also a reminder of colonialism and the violence levied against indigenous peoples.

“We see Massasoit the statue as an important touchstone in public history that sets up a complex push and pull dynamic around the problem of historical memory,” O’Brien said. “The Improved Order of Red Men erected it as a manifestation of their own historical distancing from the violence of the colonial encounter. And yet, as with all monuments, meaning comes from engagement with the statue.”

Putting aside the original intent behind the first monument, O’Brien said the way people are introduced to the statues today is not always historically accurate.

False narratives that indigenous people surrendered their lands peacefully are sometimes disseminated, even by the supposed experts who show tourists around.

Blee called the Massasoit statue a “classic example” of “settler memory,” which is Americans’ selective recognition of events surrounding indigenous people and settler colonialism.

“The memorial landscape,” O’Brien said, “insists on maintaining a cognitive distance from the past that insulates visitors from uncomfortable truths even as they purport to bring visitors closer to history by connecting them to hallowed ground.”

Adding another layer of complexity to how monuments are viewed, statues’ mobility and where they are located geographically can play a significant role in how people interact with and view them.

Since 1921, replica statues of Massasoit have been erected around the country, sometimes illegally, a practice that started in Provo.

“In all of these locations, historical memory is contested rather than resolved for once and for all,” O’Brien said. “Historical meaning making is revealed as dynamic, interactive, unsettled, open to interpretation.”

Often, accounts of the past differ between natives and nonnatives as well — further clouding public perception.

Bruyneel added that he has been fascinated by the factors that contribute to contestations of collective memory, as well as the politics of memory.

“The past is always with us, and in that sense, it’s never really past, it is very much present,” he said. “But what do we talk about when we talk about the past? It is historical facts, but it is a mixture of myth, memory and history, and the lines between these blur.”

He used the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial as an example, saying that how the civil rights leader is viewed today — as one of the most popular historical figures of the 20th century — is very different from how he was viewed in the 1960s.

Changing political attitudes that are pro-inclusion have helped King become even more of a symbol, as many people see him as a reaffirmation of their ideals.

As there will never be one consensus view of history, the historians suggest people do their own research and engage with historical events and monuments themselves to try and understand the facts.

“An ethic of engagement, it’s a tough one, but I think it should always include a place-based, historical research,” Blee said. “We need to know who created the monument and when, and what other stories happened in this place that are being hidden, obscured, kind of erased, because there’s a big monument there?”

“I don’t think we should have a rule about if it as to a particular person, it should be removed, right? I think these are very community-based discussions that need to happen.”

The historians did make a distinction between monuments depicting events or people that contributed to slavery and those representing colonialism, saying that the latter often requires more research to make sense of.

“There’s just a different approach that requires some unsettling of the premise of U.S. history,” Blee said of studying settler colonialism. “It is a different kind of work than looking at slavery, which we have all agreed is a problem and is negative.”