J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, September 04, 2020

The Good and Bad of Historic Monuments

Yesterday I remarked on/in the community discussion of whether to rename Faneuil Hall by saying there was wisdom to be found in Mayor Marty Walsh’s statement that “If we were to change the name of Faneuil Hall today, 30 years from now, no one would know why we did it.”

Walsh went on to tell the New York Times (in June 2018, showing how this isn’t a new proposal), “What we should do instead is figure out a way to acknowledge the history so people understand it. We can’t erase history, but we can learn from it.”

Acknowledging and learning from history is, I hope we all agree, a Good Thing. So what’s the best way to accomplish that?

Having a large public building named after certain people, or prominent statues or monuments honoring them, strikes me as communicating one of two messages. The simplistic takeaway is “These people were important and admirable in every significant way.” Historians and most laypeople agree that no one’s perfect. Conveying that would be a Bad Thing.

The more nuanced message that most adults understand is, “What these people did was important and beneficial enough to outweigh their flaws and mistakes.” But of course, that’s a value judgment reflecting the social power structure of the society that confers those honors. It reflects who benefited from those people’s actions and whose suffering the society deemed to be of less weight.

Retaining such honors for particular people after a public discussion about their place in history suggests that the present society has reached the same conclusion about the balance of their activities as the society that conferred those honors in the first place. Perhaps we’ve come to recognize more of the honorees’ flaws or how their activity didn’t benefit everyone equally. But the final judgment is the same.

It can therefore be hard to see a difference between those assessments. A statue of Columbus that says, “We honor this man because of how he helped Europeans take over the Americas,” can look a lot like a statue of Columbus that says, “We honor this man despite how he helped Europeans take over the Americas.” Declaring that it’s a shame historical figures kept hundreds of people enslaved, but not enough to outweigh the benefits they delivered to other wealthy white men, can’t help but carry the message that some people still don’t matter as much. And that’s the Bad Thing these reconsiderations are supposed to halt.

Then comes the possibility of renaming landmarks, removing statues, or otherwise changing monuments. That certainly avoids lionizing those historical figures, the first Bad Thing above. It also leaves no doubt about the change in society’s values, recognizing people who were once dehumanized, demeaned, or overlooked. Generally that’s a Good Thing.

But simply removing a problematic honor by renaming places or removing monuments has some drawbacks as well. It can suggest that the problem reflected in the choice to honor those people has been eliminated—but if the problem or its legacies remain, ignoring those would be a Bad Thing.

This is why I think Mayor Walsh was onto something when he spoke of the importance of retaining a public memory of when and why society changed how it honored certain people. I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusion about not renaming Faneuil Hall, but I do think the community would have to find a way to visibly preserve how the building was once named Faneuil Hall. That would have three benefits:
  • A new name would demonstrate that our society no longer overlooks the enslaved people who suffered for Peter Faneuil’s wealth and Boston’s good fortune.
  • Maintaining the memory of the old name would make it impossible to miss how our society once ignored that wrong but has since tried to recognize and correct it.
  • Juxtaposing old and new names would demonstrate historical change and the possibility of change in the future.
All of those would be Good Things, acknowledging and learning from history.

So what’s the right approach? I’ve written about it before.

TOMORROW: Planned iconoclasm.

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