But for those of us who actually work in and interpret museums, the issue of our institutions’ rightful role in this debate does not seem to be either straightforward or obvious. Are museums, in fact, the appropriate place for storing these gigantic homages—not even to the Civil War itself—but to the Jim Crow movements that fueled their commissioning and erection on state capitol grounds, university commons, city parks, and other places of power in the early decades of the 20th century? And if so, what does that say about the popularly understood notion of museums as giant warehouses to conveniently store/hide/put things away that we don’t want to deal with?
Some of us would argue that the “put them in a museum” response to Confederate memorials reflects a misunderstanding of what museums are for—and an effort to sidestep conversations that we really need to have.
Yes, museums do collect things—savory and unsavory—and, yes, they often put things away and preserve them for a very long time. But 21st century museums are striving hard to expand their reach, shift their focus and repair their popular perception as public warehouses primarily in the cold storage business for art and artifacts. More and more, we aim to surface issues, not hide them—to be places where communities come together to discuss and wrestle with contemporary questions.
The obvious retort might be, “Well then just put them in context.” And by doing so, fulfill the mission of many contemporary museums to serve as sites of civic engagement nimbly poised to investigate, convene, and discuss the most contested issues of the day. Yet putting monuments in context is anything but a simple, declarative act: power dynamics come into play. First, museums are physical spaces that convey authority. As well, statues remain powerful—and physically imposing—visual forms that will keep speaking even when they are in new settings. And, too, they can and certainly will shape social experiences in ways that curators may not be able to anticipate. A simple label is not enough. In displaying statues, museums will need to be prepared to contextualize them visually and dramatically, to represent the layers of their history—from the story of their creation to the story of them being taken down and collected.