AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Last year, after a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville turned violent, dozens of Confederate monuments came down, one by protesters in Durham, N.C...
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) No KKK, no fascist USA.
CORNISH: ...Another without fanfare by city workers using cranes in Dallas.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There it goes.
CORNISH: Some statues are in storage today. Others still stand, but they're in limbo. Local officials aren't sure exactly what to do with them - move them to a less prominent place, put them in a museum, maybe add a plaque for context. Well, Ben Wright and Christy Coleman have been thinking about the challenges Confederate monuments present to communities, and they've both worked on solutions. Wright is a curator at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. It's now home to a sculpture of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Ben Wright, welcome to the program.
BEN WRIGHT: Hello.
CORNISH: And Christy Coleman is the CEO of The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va. She's also co-chair of the Monument Avenue Commission. It recently released recommendations about the five Confederate statues in the city's historic Fan District. Christy Coleman, welcome to the program.
CHRISTY COLEMAN: Thank you very much, great to be here.
CORNISH: So let's start with a quick history about the when and where of Confederate memorials popping up.
WRIGHT: What we see from - really from the 1890s really through the 1910s is the movement of commemoration from the cemetery to the public square. The Southern economy is getting on its feet to a certain extent, so there are private finances available to erect these sort of monuments. And then you also, of course, have the fact that Confederate veterans are getting up in age and are starting to be anxious about how the public will remember their deeds.
COLEMAN: You cannot also ignore the fact that when these monuments are going up, it's a time when they are deliberately disenfranchising African-Americans from the vote. The other thing that's happening in the 1890s when these, again, these veterans are aging, and they're dying off and so forth is that there is also a movement afoot by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and other related groups to really reframe the narrative of the war. And their reframing becomes what is referred to as the Lost Cause movement where they have made every effort to take slavery out of the equation. The other thing in placing them in public square also gives them obviously a greater power than just placing them in a cemetery or a park.
CORNISH: Christy Coleman, we know that you're CEO of The American Civil War Museum. I assume your phone is ringing off the hook - right? - because, like, every town or a place staring them down the barrel of a protest permit is like, what can we do with this thing? And what do they say when they call you?
COLEMAN: The first thing they ask is, what can you tell us about our statue? And then they, yes, absolutely have asked can you take it? Resoundingly, after considerable conversation both with our staff and our board, you know, the truth is we absolutely could not take them.
CORNISH: Really? Because I noticed there aren't any other museums raising their hands for these as well. So they must have had the same considerations. Like, what's that bullet list look like?
COLEMAN: Right. Well, people think because we are The American Civil War Museum that we're absolutely the perfect place for them. But here's the problem - museums are not equipped - most museums - to not only take and place them but to provide the kind of care and conservation required to ensure that they are around for perpetuity or as close to perpetuity as possible. But then there's another part of this, which is related to the institution's mission. Sometimes when you take on artifacts or things that will skew one's mission and/or collection direction and resources, that's problematic. And that's why the museum community hasn't been raising its hand in general to say, hey, bring it here. I think the situation down at the Briscoe is a unique one.
CORNISH: Yeah. I want to ask about that. Ben Wright, after 82 years on the campus grounds in 2015, UT decided to take down Jefferson Davis off his pedestal, right?
CORNISH: When you decided to present this exhibit with all of the context around the story of the statue itself, were you criticized for not talking about Jefferson Davis enough, or, you know, did people argue with you about the history you were presenting? Because it seems like it's basically skirting the issue to just say, well, here's some fun details about how the statue went up.
WRIGHT: So just to clarify, it's a history of the statue, which touches on race relations. It touches on the way the monuments were contested at the time, which is one of the big surprises of the research phase (ph) in the 1920s. So what we did by concentrating on the statue and the rich, archival sources around the statues, we were able to create a space where all those things get talked about - Davis, Lee, white supremacy, the end of Reconstruction, the Lost Cause. You're able to have those debates without necessarily spoon-feeding in a didactic way the sort of CliffsNotes version of those conversations to people.
CORNISH: The reason why I ask and, Christy Coleman, you can jump in here as well, is another - an alternative I've also heard is let's put a plaque up - right? - or let's put another marker up near this statue that will give more context. What is that like trying to distill down a version of the history that everyone can agree on?
COLEMAN: Well, this is one of the recommendations that the Monument Avenue Commission in Richmond gave. I think people's imagination around what context looks like has been very limited. We tend to think that it's just about label copy or just placing a plaque. And one of the things that we're exploring here is how can we add context, add all this meaning, to these pieces perhaps even through other artwork? You know, in Lower Manhattan where everyone is so accustomed to the bull and the meaning of the bull down at Wall Street, the placement of that little girl, the fearless girl statue, really changed the meaning, right? There were a lot of different ways to do that, and it doesn't have to stay the same all the time.
CORNISH: And, Ben Wright, for you, what does it mean when people just say let's add, quote, unquote, "context?"
WRIGHT: I think that there is a visual message that these statues give. They say things about gender. They say things about race. And they say things about militarism that would take more than a plaque to sanitize or to assuage.
COLEMAN: Absolutely, and that's the bottom line here, right? Communities put them up to speak to how they value the history. And for a lot of the communities, especially as the communities are getting younger, they're becoming more ethnically and racially diverse, these statues no longer speak to who these communities see themselves as. And it doesn't mean there's an abandonment of an understanding and appreciation of history. What it is is they recognize that there's sort of a false narrative that's attached to a lot of these. And that's what they are trying to dismantle.
WRIGHT: There's another really important aspect to this, which is Charlottesville, which shows these statues energize a new generation of racists. They operate as both an implied endorsement and an encouragement to some very nasty political and racial ideas that still operate in American society today. And I definitely think there has been a shift between Charleston and Charlottesville from put these in a museum to just get them down because this is all getting a bit dangerous.
CORNISH: Ben Wright is at the Briscoe Center for American History in Austin. Thank you for speaking with us.
WRIGHT: You're very welcome.
CORNISH: And Christy Coleman is a historian and the CEO of The American Civil War Museum in Richmond, Va. Thank you.
COLEMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.