In recent months, a number of controversial monuments in New York City have become the subject of protests and, in some instances, vandalism. Activists have demanded the removal of a statue to J. Marion Sims, a gynecologist who experimented on enslaved women in the 19th century. Monuments to Theodore Roosevelt and Christopher Columbus, which have been decried as racially insensitive, were doused with paint.
Now, as Benjamin Sutton reports in an exclusive for Hyperallergic, more than 120 academics and artists have written a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio that calls for the removal of five contentious monuments and historic markers.
Among the letter’s signatories are prominent art historians Lucy Lippard and Hal Foster, African-American photography scholar Deborah Willis, and the artists Jackson Polys and Martha Rosler. The letter was sent to the Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers, which was established in the wake of this summer’s white nationalist rally over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in deadly violence.
The commission has been tasked with determining how best to deal with “monuments seen as oppressive and inconsistent with the values of New York City.” It held the last of five public hearings on the matter last Tuesday.
The letter singles out three monuments and two historic markers that are scattered throughout the city: the J. Marion Sims statue, the Roosevelt statue, which stands at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, a Christopher Columbus monument at Columbus Circle, and commemorative markers to Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval in the Financial District.
These tributes, the letter-writers argue, “are an affront in a city whose elected officials preach tolerance and equity.” Pétain and Laval were key players in the Vichy regime, the French puppet government, which collaborated with the Nazis and, as the letter writes note, “organized its own deportation to Auschwitz of over 70,000 Jewish French citizens.” Sims, called the "father of modern gynecology," conducted experimental surgeries on enslaved black women, whom he operated on without anesthesia. Roosevelt, as Peter Libbey of the New York Times reports, has come under scrutiny for his “opinions about racial hierarchy and eugenics.” The American Museum of Natural History’s monument to the 26th president is itself “a stark embodiment of white supremacy,” the letter-writers claim; it depicts Roosevelt on horseback, with a black and Indigenous man standing next to him.
But it is the Columbus monument that is “[b]y far the most controversial,” according to the letter. Though the explorer is renowned for his ambitious voyages to the New World, many have noted that Columbus and his men inflicted brutal and devastating treatment on the indigenous populations they encountered.
Nick Mirzoeff, a professor of visual culture at New York University and one of the letter’s signatories, tells Hyperallergic’s Sutton that he does not believe the monuments should be destroyed. “They should be placed in exhibits that lead visitors through this history so that at the moment of confronting the statue, the (white) viewer already has the knowledge they need to see the statue as racist,” he says.
A decision on the fate of the monuments may soon be forthcoming. Now that the public hearings have concluded, de Blasio’s commission is expected to makes its recommendations to the mayor by the end of this year.