Public commemorative spaces in the United States tell a highly selective—and often explicitly racist—version of the nation’s history.
As Rebecca Santana reports for the Associated Press, less than 2 percent of historic sites on the National Register of Historic Places relate to African American history. Fewer still represent the stories of Latino, Asian American or Native American people.
Conversely, a 2019 study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 1,747 Confederate symbols remained standing across the nation; many have since come under increased scrutiny or been removed as protests against systemic racism proliferate across the country.
In the years to come, the landscape of public memorials in the United States may change dramatically. This week, one of the nation’s leading philanthropic organizations, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, announced plans to commit $250 million toward the establishment of new monuments that better reflect the country’s diverse history.
The so-called “Monuments Project” is the largest campaign in the foundation’s history, reports the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler. Over the next five years, the foundation will fund the creation of new “monuments, memorials, or historic storytelling spaces” that tell hidden or marginalized histories, as well as relocating and contextualizing existing monuments and memorials, according to a statement.
“The beauty of monuments as a rubric is, it’s really a way of asking, ‘How do we say who we are? How do we teach our history in public places?’” says foundation president Elizabeth Alexander to the Times. “… We want to ask how we can help think about how to give form to the beautiful and extraordinary and powerful multiplicity of American stories.”
Many of the monuments that currently adorn America’s public spaces are at the center of an ongoing, “impassioned national conversation about race and power,” says the foundation in the statement. To recontextualize and reimagine these historical sites, Mellon will fund projects like artist Dustin Klein’s recent light installations, which projected images of historical figures including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman onto a controversial statue of Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia.
Alexander tells the Times that the foundation will not recommend monuments for removal or reevaluation. Instead, she says, the projects Mellon takes on “will depend on who comes to us.”
Speaking with the AP, Alexander adds, “There are so many stories of who we are that need to be told. We don’t have our actual, true history represented in our landscape.”
Previously, the foundation has dedicated $5 million toward the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors the victims of lynching, among other historic sites.
Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative and creator of the Montgomery, Alabama, memorial, says he is “thrilled” about the initiative. In the statement, Stevenson notes that the promised funds are “critical to our quest to tell the true story of our nation—its faults and failures as well as its promise and greatness.”
The Monuments Project’s first major grant—amounting to $4 million distributed over a three-year period—will support the Monument Lab, a public art and history studio based in Philadelphia. Per the AP, the organization plans to use the funds to conduct a definitive audit of the U.S.’ existing monument landscape. Findings will be released in 2021. The group will also dedicate $1 million toward opening ten field research office locations across the country.
Monument Lab co-founder Paul Farber tells the AP that the grant promises to be “profoundly” transformative for his organization, allowing it to make a significant contribution to the study of American public history.
“This is a way to make generational change in public art and history,” says Farber. “When you impact public art, you’re impacting democracy. ... And I think an investment in a new way of building and gathering around monuments is an investment in democracy.”