Why Just ‘Adding Context’ to Controversial Monuments May Not Change Minds

Research shows that visitors often ignore information that conflicts with what they already believe about history

The statue of Hannah Dunston has been vandalized with red paint in recent months (Photograph by Craig Michaud via Wikicommons under CC 3.0 license)
smithsonianmag.com

In 1697, Native American raiders, probably from the Abenaki people, took English colonist Hannah Duston, 40 years old at the time, and her newborn daughter captive. A month later, Hannah rode back into Haverhill, Massachusetts, on a stolen canoe carrying a bag full of scalps. Hannah’s daughter had died or been killed, and Hannah herself had escaped after leading a plan, with her Abenaki nursemaid and a fellow English prisoner, to kill their four adult captors— and their six children. Shown the scalps as proof of Duston’s deeds, Massachusetts voted to give her a reward of 25 pounds.

If you visit the tiny, uninhabited island in New Hampshire where Duston is thought to have freed herself, you will find what is probably America’s very first monument celebrating a woman. Constructed in 1874, this marble monument shows her in a flowing nightdress. In her right hand is a hatchet. In her left hand, looking like a fading bouquet of drooping poppies, are the scalps, little curled pucks of skin gathered together by their hair. The accompanying historical marker sign calls Duston a “famous symbol of frontier heroism.”

Not everyone agrees, and the New Hampshire statue bears the marks of these disputes. It has been shot in the face at least twice and is still missing its nose. Its marble bears ghostly outlines of scrubbed-off graffiti. Another portrait statue of Duston in Massachusetts has also been repeatedly vandalized. Most recently, in July 2020, someone chalked “Haverhill’s own monument to genocide” on its base.

“Through Indigenous eyes,” Denise K. Pouliot, the Sag8moskwa (female spokesperson) of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki people told me, “we see a statue honoring a murderer.” After someone splashed red paint over the New Hampshire statue in May 2020, the state’s Division of Historical Resources started reconsidering the site’s future. Now, the Cowasuck Band is working with New Hampshire officials, historians, and some of Duston’s descendants to change the site by adding signage and other monuments, hoping to let visitors to make up their own minds about Duston. Is she a heroic victim of violence or a participant in the devastating effects of European settlement in New England, whose Native American tribes had lost an estimated 60 to 80 percent of their population in the 20 years preceding Duston’s kidnapping—or both?

Earlier this year, the statue of Duston was splashed with red paint in protest (Courtesy of Denise Pouliot)

Dozens of monuments have been toppled or removed from public view in recent months, as protestors point out how they, like Duston’s statue, leave out important aspects of history. But people on all sides of these debates have been arguing that removal isn’t necessary. Instead, we can just add signage to remind viewers of the history and people left out by the monuments.

This is the approach the National Park Service is taking towards the hundreds of Confederate monuments on its sites. Even though some of these monuments have been controversial for decades, the Park Service’s website promises that “these works and their inscriptions will not be altered, relocated, obscured, or removed, even when they are deemed inaccurate.” Instead, the Park Service intends to add signage to explain the causes of the war to visitors, emphasizing that slavery was a key part of the dispute. The Civil War historians who gathered at National Park sites like Gettysburg this September to protest omissions and distortions in existing signage know that this is a big promise to keep.

Many American historical homes have added information about slavery to their signage and tours in recent years. At Monticello, you can visit reconstructions of where the more than 600 people Thomas Jefferson enslaved lived and worked, or visit a touring exhibition “Paradox of Liberty: Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello,” which tells the stories of six enslaved families to question how the man who wrote “all men are created equal” could have owned them. Gary Sandling, Monticello’s vice president of education and visitor programs, told me that the site’s goal “is to make the reality of slavery at Monticello an essential part of any visit.”

But does this newly added information change the way visitors experience monuments and historic sites? Laurajane Smith, a professor at Australian National University, knows that changing someone’s mind about history isn’t as easy as tacking on a new sign. Her new book, Emotional Heritage, summarizes what she has learned during a decade of interviewing thousands of visitors to historical sites across the world, including the United States.

Smith wanted to figure out what’s really going on when people visit a historical site like the homes of James Madison or Andrew Jackson. She told me that the vast majority of these visitors are “engaged in reinforcing what they knew and believed.” Their reaction to the site depends almost exclusively on who they are and what prior knowledge they brought with them to the site. Their visit serves as “a shared experience” that gives them a comfortable sense of fitting in to a history and a society.

Smith says that an “almost negligible” amount of visitors—less than three percent of the people she interviewed—said they had learned something substantial, as opposed to minor information, from their visit to a historical site or monument. This seemed like a puzzling result, since many of these visitors had just toured sites that, like Monticello, had recently put up new displays to educate visitors about painful parts of their history that had previously been ignored. So how did people avoid this information?

When Smith asked about the new displays, some people at each site told her “‘I didn’t even see it.’” They were so eager to pay homage to a former president that they could walk right through an entryway with an introductory display about his ownership of enslaved people without noticing it. But most visitors did notice such information. Yet, if it contradicts what they believe, Smith says that they “brush it off as irrelevant.”

In 2012, when Smith talked to visitors to an earlier version of the “Paradox of Liberty” exhibition, many of them told her that they had learned that Jefferson was a good master, that the life of enslaved people was better than they had thought, or that they though Americans should “move past” Jefferson’s ownership of people because “we should be focusing on what he did for this country as a stateman.” These visitors were primed to reject any attempts to argue them out of their beliefs in Jefferson’s greatness.

Smith’s research results won’t be surprising to many who have worked as interpreters at former plantations. Visitors have reacted aggressively to attempts to make slavery more visible at sites like Monticello. Some leave negative reviews, like the visitor who complained that a tour guide talking about the lives of people enslaved by Jefferson made him seem like “a bad person” and thus “just ruined [the visit] for me.” Visitors also argue with site staff. For example, historian Michael W. Twitty, who considers his work as an interpreter demonstrating Black culinary traditions at plantation sites to be a homage to his ancestors, has written about being challenged by visitors who told him that enslaved people were “well fed” and had “nothing to complain about.”

The staff of Monticello have gone to great lengths to include more information about Thomas Jefferson's history as an enslaver. ( Adrianne Wadewitz via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0 license )

Sandling told me that surveys carried out beginning in 2016 show that “far more” visitors to Monticello report being receptive to the site’s inclusion of information about slavery than those who challenge it. And he insists that “place matters when taking about slavery.” Monticello’s staff hopes that its visitors have a very different experience of learning about slavery when they are “literally standing on the ground of a place where hundreds of people lived and labored.” But Monticello’s surveys do not show whether visitors actually react to this experience by changing their existing beliefs.

Confirmation bias helps explain the way that visitors to historical sites and monuments close their minds to new information. Our senses present us with a constant, overwhelming amount of information. We use a variety of cognitive shortcuts we use to navigate through it. Scientists have identified a bias toward looking for, trusting and remembering information that fits in with our existing world view. Conversely, we tend to ignore or discount information that calls our beliefs into question.

But what about unfamiliar historical sites, like the Hannah Duston memorial? Just because visitors have fewer preexisting beliefs about a particular historical episode doesn’t mean they will respond to it in a strictly logical way. That’s because monuments are designed to invoke particular reactions. Duston’s statue, for example, shows her with a haunted expression. Her delicate dress slips off her shoulder, almost bearing a breast. The sculptor, William Andrews, emphasized her femininity and vulnerability. She does not look like someone who has just killed in cold blood, whatever the motivation. Viewers who already know about other versions of Duston’s history might not be swayed by this portrayal of her as a victim. But it’s hard to believe that a few lines of text on a placard is going to be enough to overcome the emotional pull of the statue for a visitor who comes to the site without already knowing what they think about her.

If adding information in the form of signage, displays, and tour content isn’t enough to change the minds of visitors who already know what they want to believe about history, is there any alternative to removing monuments? One solution might be to take advantage of the brain’s reaction to images by adding not just text but also additional images to a site. Thus, the Cowasuck Band plans to add monuments honoring fallen Abenaki warriors to the Duston memorial site. Pouliot, the Cowasuck Band spokesperson, points out that people have used Duston’s life for their own purposes through “decades of storytelling, art and education,” and her goal is to use these same means to “reconstruct the colonial narrative into one that includes a broader accurate historical perspective than the one currently being offered.”

Smith, the professor who studies visitor responses to heritage sites, told me that she thinks these sites need to shift their focus from education to emotion. Since research reveals that people aren’t going to historical sites to learn, she believes sites should “provide the resources to allow visitors to work through difficult and challenging emotions in in a way that is constructive.” As an example, Smith pointed to the Immigration Museum of Melbourne, Australia, which uses tools like an interactive simulation of a hate speech incident on a tram to guide visitors into thinking about the experience of discrimination from different points of view. This experience can be uncomfortable, but Smith insists that the heritage is not “cuddly and warm and fuzzy.” What happened in history, and what that should mean to us, is always contested.

Another possibility would be to take a cue from scholars who have been looking at the most efficient ways to fight the spread of conspiracy theories and other false information conveyed in a visual form, such altered photos and videos. Studies suggest that these visuals are more memorable and shared with greater frequency on social media than textual misinformation. But it’s complicated to debunk these false visuals, because re-publishing a manipulated image risks spreading it to people who ignore the accompanying story. For example, the non-profit First Draft recommends that journalists add debunking information directly onto the manipulated image, using bright colors and bold text to make sure their message gets across.

In a good sense, this method is little different from the spray-painted messages left on controversial monuments by protestors. When faced with a monument like this, viewers can’t ignore the fact that not everyone agrees with the version of history that monument represents. Thus, the simplest way to create room for debate and new interpretations at the Hannah Duston memorial site might have been to simply leave it the way it was in May, covered in paint, as red as blood and impossible to ignore.

About Erin Thompson

Erin L. Thompson is a professor studying the relationships between art and crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (City University of New York). Her forthcoming book, Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of American Monuments (Norton 2021) looks at the history of protests against controversial monuments.

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