The philosophical question on whether to take down Confederate monuments, now faces a practical one. What do you do with all these statues?
The suggestion that they should all be put in museums is a fine sentiment but not a realistic one for a simple reason: Load-bearing floors.
The Robert E. Lee monument that Gov. Ralph Northam has ordered removed from Richmond’s Monument Avenue weighs 12 tons. Museums are not built to house that kind of statuary. Even finding warehouse space in which to store them becomes problematic.
The Taliban had one solution for statues that had fallen out of favor. They used anti-aircraft guns and dynamite to blast apart two 6th century statues of the Buddha that offended them. Let’s not be that simplistic. We may no longer want to elevate Lee and others to places of honor, but we shouldn’t mindlessly smash up artwork that can still teach us something about our past. The mayor of the Southside town of Crewe had one idea: Greg Eanes wrote the governor to say he’d love to have the statues in his town for tourism purposes. Of course, Virginia’s not taking down Lee from an honored position in one city only to put him up in another. Eanes, feeling some political heat, later withdrew the offer and then resigned the mayorship a few weeks before he was scheduled to leave office anyway.
His idea, though, is not as tone-deaf as it may seem. We are not the first people to have a change of heart about what figures from our past we want to celebrate in marble, granite and bronze, and not the first to have to dispose of all those statues. At least four countries around the world have taken fallen statues and created parks to “contextualize” them — Hungary, India, Lithuania and Russia.
The most famous of those is Memento Park outside Budapest, Hungary. When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, so did lots of communist-era statues. In Hungary, many of those statues were hauled into a field. Eventually, Hungarian officials decided to refashion that literal dustbin of history into an open-air museum to tell the story of the country’s communist era. Today there are 42 monuments in the park – multiple Lenins and lesser communist figures, and other discredited representations such as the “Soviet-Hungarian Friendship” statue.
This is hardly communist nostalgia. The exhibition hall is built to look like an internment camp for political prisoners. The park’s architect describes the park this way: “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”
Lithuania has a similar park. The privately funded Grutas Park is built to look like a Soviet gulag — with guard towers and barbed wire. Statues of Lenin and Stalin are in the part called the Totalitarian Sphere. Others are assigned to the Terror Sphere. In all, there are 86 statues. The park’s exhibit spaces are said to give an unsparing view of Soviet repression — mass deportations and executions. Three years ago The Economist published a favorable review of the park: “As countries grapple with their unsavoury pasts and consider the rightful place of their controversial monuments, the park offers an alternative model to museums or destruction.”
Russia has the biggest park of ousted statues. The Muzeon Park of Arts outside Moscow displays more than 700 statues with another 200 or so still in storage, although Russia apparently doesn’t go to the same lengths that Hungary and Lithuania have to explain why the figures represented are now in disfavor.
Those three parks all house former communist statues. For something different, there’s Coronation Park in Delhi, India. This is where India put many of its British statues after independence. India no longer wanted to honor British monarchs and colonial overlords but still respected the artwork.
Do these parks offer a model for Virginia and other Southern states? Put another way, does Virginia — and the nation — need a place where we can examine what really happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the South set about trying to undo the results of the Civil War by other means? Here’s something that astonishes many Virginians when they learn it: Virginia did not move directly from Reconstruction to repression. Instead, in the 1880s there was a brief period in which Virginia was actually on a pretty progressive path for its time, one led by the Readjuster Party, which at the time was the civil rights party in the state (and was aligned with Republicans nationally). During those years, Virginia abolished the poll tax and the whipping post. It appointed African-Americans to government posts. It elected African-Americans to public office. Virginia’s first African-American congressman was a Republican, John Langston of Louisa County, who was elected in 1888, more than a decade after Reconstruction formally ended. Danville elected a black-majority town council and proceeded to integrate its police force. Then came the reaction, in a series of elections in the 1880s and 1890s that saw a conservative backlash. Those elections were every bit as consequential as Appomattox, just in different ways. In 1902, with conservative Democrats firmly in charge, Virginia rewrote its constitution to disenfranchise as many people (black and white) as possible. The state’s leaders refused to put the new document to a vote because they knew voters were unlikely to disenfranchise themselves. Instead, the constitution was simply “proclaimed,” a kind of a legal coup d’tat. It was during that era that Jim Crow laws were enthusiastically passed — and Confederate statutes started going up, a visible assertion of just who was really in charge. Few Virginians understood that era because even in the 1970s official state textbooks glorified the conservative Democrats who instituted that crackdown and vilified the Republican progressives who tried to set Virginia on a different path.
So do we need a museum to tell that story? Absolutely. Hungary and Lithuania suggest that one way to tell it is to use the very symbols that were elevated then and are being de-elevated now. “Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages,” said architect Ákos Eleod, who designed the Hungarian park. “Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyze it and think about it.”
So where should that museum be?
— The Roanoke Times
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!