Recent events have shone a spotlight on the struggle to come to terms with our memorial landscapes. The empty niche on Duke Chapel's facade once held a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. After it was defaced in August 2017, it was promptly and quietly removed on the order of university officials. Debates surrounding Confederate monuments, in particular, have raised important questions about how we remember (and honor) our nation's past. While portrait statues tend to "talk" about themselves in positive terms, the story they tell is often one-sided.
The call to remove these statues from the civic landscape has been heard since at least the late 19th century. Until quite recently, the call has usually fallen on deaf ears. Since the beginning of 2016, however, a growing number of Confederate monuments have been officially removed from public spaces and universities. Those opposed to removal contend that taking down a statue is tantamount to erasing history. It is sometimes difficult to remember that statues are not neutral historical documents; as commemorative monuments, they have social and political agendas. Their stories are often biased in favor of the opinions of those who paid to set them up.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the violence in Charlottesville, VA, over the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, Confederate monuments across the country were the victims of cultural vandalism. The acts of iconoclasm brought welcome attention not only to the statues around us, but also to the social narratives and experiences that are not usually visible in a monumental landscape that, more often than not, celebrates white men. Although new stories are now being told through new portrait monuments that represent women and people of color, the question remains: if portrait statues are meant to be permanent memorials to (and celebrations of) the men and women they represent, what do we do when we change our minds about the people we once chose to honor? What is to become of the large, expensive hunks of stone and marble that make up the monuments of once-honored individuals accused of sexual misconduct, racial oppression, or even genocide?
In contemporary society bronze statue monuments are often difficult to remove from public spaces not only because of their accrued social value, but also because of the monetary costs involved in physically taking them down and storing them (removing four bronze Confederate statues in New Orleans, Louisiana, cost over $2,000,000!). To better understand the value we place on bronze statues and why it can be so difficult to take them down, the next "stop" on this tour will examine the process of making them.
Cite this Page
Elizabeth Baltes, “Robert E. Lee,” Statues Speak @ Duke, accessed November 14, 2019, http://statuesspeak.dukewired.net/items/show/42.