Memory  /  Museum Review

Bryan Stevenson Reclaims the Monument, in the Heart of the Deep South

The civil-rights attorney has created a sculpture park, indicting the city of Montgomery—a former capital of the domestic slave trade.

E.J.I. receives no public funding for the Legacy Museum, the lynching memorial, or the sculpture park, which together are known as the Legacy Sites. They are an indictment of Montgomery, a former capital of the domestic slave trade. The sites are angry and mournful: their invocations of peace, justice, and freedom are not banal. The Legacy Museum is a museum in name only. Though it contains some artifacts, such as jars of soil collected from lynching sites, they serve mostly to enhance the main display, which is text. “I am not as interested in object and artifact, mostly because I don’t think it has the same narrative power,” Stevenson told me. “Or at least you have to provide a narration so it’s not easily misinterpreted.” Stevenson incorporates video and even holograms into the exhibits, creating a black-box-theatre experience in order to tell an epic story: the evolution of anti-Black violence in America, from the transatlantic slave trade to Jim Crow terrorism and today’s mass-incarceration crisis. The museum is an analogue to the Times’ 1619 Project, a sweeping public chronicle of an alternative origin story for our country.

The Freedom Monument Sculpture Park is more of a period piece. Like the Legacy Museum, it thwarts our tendency to see slavery from the vantage of the freed. It sticks narrowly to enslavement, concluding with the aftermath of the Civil War. It is also a feat of contemporary-art acquisition, containing works by the likes of Simone Leigh, Hank Willis Thomas, Alison Saar, Charles Gaines, and Nikesha Breeze. The sculptures give the park a straightforward visual appeal; this is the one Legacy Site that you would not hesitate to call beautiful. But, as you attempt to take in the art, an active rail line—originally built by the enslaved to cart in more of the enslaved—makes noise nearby. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the art and the artifacts: an object that from a distance looks like an abstract sculpture reveals itself to be a whipping post, driven into the dirt.

The atmosphere at the park is that of a necropolis. You enter under an arch and encounter a placard that asks for your quiet and your attention. Stevenson has designed a kind of Passion Walk, a circular path through the woods, punctuated by art, artifact, and text. It begins before America began, with a section devoted to Alabama’s Indigenous history, followed by a slow anatomization of the transatlantic slave trade and life in enslavement. The path culminates in the National Monument to Freedom, which is grandly literal, impossible to misinterpret. Visitors can use an app to locate their own surnames on the surface, making the monument a living archive.