Monuments: Snapshots of an Ever-Changing Story

by Catherine Allgor, MHS President; Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai, MHS Director of Research; Elyssa Tardif, MHS Director of Education; and Kate Melchior, MHS Assistant Director of Education

Americans have begun to reexamine the monuments that make up our civic landscape. While these discussions are not new, the recent protests over this country’s longstanding racial injustice have given them a new urgency and scope. Ultimately, each decision about the fate of a local monument will be decided by the people in that community, and we believe that the current dialogue is both valuable and timely. Indeed, as the nation’s first historical society, we applaud the increased interest in and conversations about historical artifacts, people, events, and monuments.

As people in Massachusetts and across the country voice their understandings of the present-day impact of these monuments, as they debate whether such representations should remain in place, two refrains emerge: calls to remove monuments and the concern that doing so will change or erase history. For the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS), these frame a key question: In the midst of such a pressing debate, what is the role of historical societies and archives?

We cannot change the past. But history—that is, how we interpret and make meaning of the past—changes all the time. Consider how textbooks have narrated the American Revolution: not until the 1990s did textbooks mention the roles of Black people and White women, despite abundant evidence of their contributions. It is not that this evidence did not exist until the 1990s, but rather that, in prior years, a deliberate choice was made to include only part of the story.

Monuments, like textbooks, tell a particular story about the past. By their nature, they are imperfect. They present only a snapshot of some past person or event. Monuments cannot capture the true complexity of history. But they can be the prompt for conversations about the past, how we remember it, and what that interpretation says about our present values. To understand a monument, we must consider the historical context in which it was created. What story does the monument tell through its design? Who raised the funds to build it, and what was their goal? What does the location of the monument tell us about its intended purpose? Whose voices are promoted or silenced?  Does the monument inspire reflection? Does it provide knowledge? Can it cause harm?

At the MHS, we not only care for artifacts of history—manuscripts, photographs, letters, and film—but we also provide a forum for discussion and debate. While some of the materials in our collection were produced by the people who built monuments, others were created by the community members who first experienced them. We welcome the public to engage with the materials in our collections in order to construct meaning out of the past: to write history, together.

As our priorities and values change as a society, the way we understand and commemorate the past, through monuments and other sites of memory, evolves as well. Because monuments do not exist in a vacuum but are always within a community, those communities must be equipped to engage critically with monuments and the roles they play, both past and present.  It is the right of every community to debate whether any statue, or work of public art, continues to serve a valuable and productive purpose in its current location and to determine whether we should permit monuments to remain as they are, move them to another site, contextualize them in a new way, or remove them entirely from public view.

The MHS believes that assessing the meaning and significance of monuments is a worthy community conversation. As a historical society founded to collect and communicate evidence of the past, we hope to offer communities the tools to better understand a monument’s past and foster dialogue around decisions about its future.

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