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Weighing the fate of our most problematic public art

The Museum of Fine Arts has been deep in conversations, both internally and with local Native American groups, about the future of “Appeal to the Great Spirit.”Lane Turner/Globe Staff

In Delhi’s Coronation Park, the ragged bones of the long-dead British empire sit on jumbled display. Britain withdrew from India more than 70 years ago, leaving behind the question of what to do with all the monuments the empire built to its own power. India’s first response was practical, selling off what it could to colonial countries still tethered to the queen (Canada, for example, ended up with several). The leftovers were then trucked to Coronation Park, a monument itself to crumbled foreign rule.

In the United States, mass protests have sped a reckoning with our own monuments to colonial power, but their fate is far from determined.


History being in constant overdrive, it’s easy to forget that it started almost three years ago, when the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., spurred Southern governments to start chipping away at monuments to slavers and Confederates. Almost all of them went into storage, many of them at secure locations to prevent further conflict. Other ideas were floated — donating them to Confederate cemeteries, or offering them to museums — but those plans largely haven’t come to pass. For now, it’s enough that the monuments are gone.

The movement is no longer confined to the South. On June 30, artist Tory Bullock’s petition to take down 19th-century sculptor Thomas Ball’s “The Emancipation Group,” a statue at Park Square that features a paternal Abraham Lincoln seeming to bestow freedom upon the Black man crouched at his feet, helped prompt the Boston Art Commission to unanimously approve its removal. (The commission meets again on Tuesday to plot its plan for taking down the piece, including the idea of adding interpretive signage before and after the removal.) New York’s Museum of Natural History announced last month that it would remove from its front steps on Central Park West a statue of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse and flanked by Black and Indigenous men.


A detail of "The Emancipation Group," located in Boston's Park Square. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Even the Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment Memorial, that treasured bronze relief on Boston Common by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, has drawn scrutiny for the hierarchy it features — Shaw on horseback, his Black company of Union soldiers trudging alongside. In the North End, the head of Christopher Columbus was torn off more than a month ago, and there he stood for days before being spirited off, leaving behind an empty pedestal. For a little while, it was like our own little Coronation Park: An old order shattered, a monument to its own anachronism.

“I think that people have known for a really long time that these things needed to happen,” said Jami Powell, associate curator of Indigenous art at Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum and a member of the Osage Nation. “There’s been this wave of support that I think demonstrates that public institutions don’t need to be fearful of doing the right thing. We just needed an impetus to get it done.”

Last month at Dartmouth was a case in point: Quickly and with great fanfare, the school removed a weather vane depicting an Indigenous man with a feather headdress sitting on the ground in front of the college’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock (a video, complete with heroic soundtrack, was posted not long after). Powell contrasted the school’s swift action with the protracted process at Dartmouth to remove the Hovey murals, made in the 1930s and long criticized as a condescending, sexualized fantasy of Native Americans. That process involved multiple committees, reports, and years of review, Powell said. The weather vane came down within days of Dartmouth’s president determining it should go.


Like the Confederate monuments, these works were tucked into storage with no clear plans for the future. But Powell feels strongly about what shouldn’t happen. “Some colleagues and I half-joked that museums are not the dumpster for racist art,” she said. “It costs money to store and care for these things. Those are resources being taken from other opportunities.”

Here’s where the United States could take a cue from India, or even from the former Eastern Bloc, dotted with monument graveyards filled with former Soviet icons. In these places, no effort is made to preserve old statues. They’re just left to fade away. In India, the colonial monuments are fundamentally neutered in public, left to erode in a long-neglected park. In, say, Estonia, Soviet monuments are dumped to the side and kept largely out of view.

Statues of King George V and other Imperial notables at India's Coronation Park.Stuart Freedman/Corbis via Getty Images

Unlike in India, where the British ruling order withdrew and left behind the ruins of its empire, American monuments don’t go quietly. President Trump signed an executive order last month protecting monuments from vandalism and removal. And lawsuits frequently accompany removal orders. A group in Richmond, Va., has sued over Governor Ralph Northam’s executive order to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee on the city’s Monument Avenue, where it has become a national rallying point for the takedown movement.


While defenders, such as the president, cite “heritage,” there’s no getting around a simple fact: Colonial monuments were always about domination — powerfully, clearly, and publicly. In the Jim Crow South, Confederate monuments were symbols of an old racist order, alive and cruelly dominant long after the Union victory in the war.

But does locking away history, however ugly, counter the damage it causes? Opinions are split. “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” the 1908 bronze statue of an Indigenous chief on horseback by the white American artist Cyrus Dallin, has stood on the front lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts for more than a century. The figure’s arms are spread wide, his eyes cast to the heavens. Last year, it was the subject of a symposium at the MFA as part of the museum’s airing-out of historic shortcomings concerning its engagement with Native American culture. The director of the Cyrus Dallin Art Museum, in Arlington, Mass., argued the piece should be re-interpreted in the context of today.

"Dallin has taken our grief as Indigenous peoples and cast and immobilized it in bronze," writes former MFA intern Joseph Zordan.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Joseph Zordan, a former curatorial intern at the MFA and a member of the Bad River Ojibwe nation, published an essay on the museum’s website Monday decrying the harm the piece represents. “With ‘Appeal to the Great Spirit,‘ ” he writes, “Dallin has taken our grief as Indigenous peoples and cast and immobilized it in bronze, cursed to hang in the air forever, with lips parted and eyes frozen wide open.” The museum has recently been deep in conversation, both internally and with local Native American groups, about the future of the work.


It’s just one of the necessary conversations happening all over the country.

“Public space has always been a battle terrain,” said Edmund Barry Gaither, director and curator of Boston’s Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, “especially for those with really progressive points of view. Public space generally reflects the voice and vision of the status quo. And what does that do? You find facile explanations of the relationships between one group and another that are simply false to human experience.”

That’s a succinct definition of “The Emancipation Group,” installed here in 1879 as a cardboard cutout image of virtue for a wounded country in need of a patron saint. The statue, a copy of the original in Washington, D.C, “might be described as the softer face of white supremacy,” Gaither said, “the infantilizing idea that Black people really needed white people to take care of them.”

As a counterpoint, Gaither pointed to Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller’s sculpture in Harriet Tubman Park, made in 1913 to mark the 50th anniversary of emancipation. “It has no Lincoln, no broken shackles, no one rolling their eyes heavenward,” he said. “There is a tree trunk, representing the matrix of history, and out of it step the freed man and the freed woman. And the ultimate thing that matters about that piece is it says that you don’t get given freedom — you make freedom by daring to step forward into the world, acting with your own volition.”

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller's sculpture "Emancipation" at Harriet Tubman Square in Boston.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

But removing “The Emancipation Group” also takes away an opportunity, Gaither said. “If you were at Park Square with that Lincoln piece, and you could access the Fuller piece on your phone, you could really enter this more teachable moment,” he said. “The end result is that you gain literacy in the forces that govern public space.”

But the statue need not remain at its prominent perch, Gaither added. He’d be happy to see it tucked away at the Boston Public Library, buffered by interpretive and educational context. (The piece, like many of its kind, will go into storage, the city said.)

Is it enough to interpret the past, or does it need to be confronted? There’s a split there, too. Late last year, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond introduced a new monument by contemporary Black artist Kehinde Wiley on Monument Avenue, where Robert E. Lee and his fellow confederate general Stonewall Jackson long loomed. (Jackson was removed just this month; the pending lawsuit keeps Lee in place, for now.)

Wiley’s piece, of a young Black man heroically astride a horse, just like the generals, in a hoodie with dreadlocked hair, is made in the same bronze and at the same scale as the generals, towering on a concrete pedestal almost 30 feet high. Wiley told CBS News that he thought the Confederate generals should stay put. “I think that the best thing to do is to respond to them with more statues,” he said. “What I’m saying is, the answer to negative speech is more speech, positive speech. . . . It makes sense to have something exist on a monumental level, because this is a monumental conversation that this country needs to have.”

"Rumor's of War" by Kehinde Wiley was installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts last year.Steve Helber/Associated Press

Jen Mergel, an independent curator of public art, works frequently with contemporary artists who produce ephemeral pieces (Fujiko Nakaya’s “Fog x FLO,” an enveloping shroud of mist along the Emerald Necklace Park system in 2018, was her commission). The problem with historic monuments, Mergel said, is exactly their immutability in a world in constant flux. In a moment where equity is at the fore of every conversation, resources also play in.

With the decapitated Columbus statue, Mergel weighed the right way forward. Should money be spent restoring the statue? Or do you take that money and run a series of public talks that addresses colonial legacies, and what Columbus represents to different people? “When you’re not a monocultural society, public space is a space for debate,” she said.

The vandalized statue of Christopher Columbus in the North End neighborhood of Boston before it was removed.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Mergel said the traditional monument strategy, that depends on “single statements to last in perpetuity,” stifles that debate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they should go. At the Shaw Memorial Mergel said, the Friends of the Public Garden have built an app to reveal stories embedded in Saint-Gaudens’s masterwork: stories of Frederick Douglass’s sons being in the regiment, of Shaw’s family insisting that the general not be memorialized alone, but with the soldiers with whom he served. She also mentioned a new kind of public artwork that takes up zero space: Nancy Baker Cahill’s “Liberty Bell,” an augmented reality display that can be seen only with a smartphone on Boston Harbor.

For Powell, the curator at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum, dynamism has to be a baseline for monuments of any kind. “That’s the thing about traditional monuments — they don’t really allow us that space for growth,” she said. “We need to think about how we can grapple with complexity: How do we create more dynamic monuments? I think that’s a much more productive question than wondering what to do with the ones we’ve got.”

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.