Scholars Spent a Year Scrutinizing America’s Monuments. Here’s What They Learned

A major audit of nearly 50,000 monuments reveals the historical figures, themes and myths that dominate the nation’s commemorative landscape

A close up view of workers carving the heads of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the audit found that the majority of America's monuments commemorate white, male historical figures. Smithsonian Museum of American Art

Last summer, statues were seemingly coming down left and right. After the police murder of George Floyd sparked widespreads protests against racial injustice and police brutality, communities across the United States rallied to reevaluate—and, often, remove—the racist, misleading art decorating their public spaces.

Some works were quietly disassembled by authorities with cranes and construction gear. Others were thrown into the sea or yanked from their pedestals by protesters. Since May 2020, the Toppled Monuments Archive has cataloged 84 such removals of “colonialist, imperialist, racist and sexist monuments” in North America; the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Whose Heritage? Project, meanwhile, states that a record-breaking 168 Confederate symbols—including statues, institution names and plaques—were taken down in 2020.

But what about the public works that remain? According to Monument Lab, an art history and social justice nonprofit based in Philadelphia, an estimated 99.4 percent of American monuments were not toppled or taken down in 2020 and 2021.

In other words, Monument Lab director Paul Farber tells Smithsonian magazine, “for every [removed] monument that’s in the spotlight, ... scores more are still there as the old, worn furniture of a city or town.” Unsurprisingly, the statues still standing overwhelmingly honor white, male historical figures.

Scholars Spent a Year Scrutinizing America's Monuments. Here's What They Learned
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial became the National Mall's first monument dedicated to an African American person when it opened in 2011.   Carol M. Highsmith / Library of Congress

To view the nation’s commemorative landscape from a bird’s eye perspective, Farber and colleagues Laurie Allen and Sue Mobley led a team of 30 researchers in a year-long project to catalog as many American monuments as possible.

As Zachary Small reports for the New York Times, the survey—published this week as a 42-page audit and an open-source, searchable database—is the first of its kind. Funded by the Mellon Foundation’s $250 million Monuments Project, the analysis charts 48,178 statues, plaques, parks and obelisks across public spaces in every state and U.S. territory.

The researchers parsed data from 42 publicly available sources, including state, tribal and federal records; National Park Service databases; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Save Outdoor Sculpture! survey, which was conducted between 1990 and 1995 and, until now, constituted the nation’s largest source of monument-related data.

“We did a lot of streamlining of data, bringing in biographical information and really pulling things together from scattered, decentralized sources,” says Farber.

The resulting data set allows scholars to “lift up the hood on the mechanisms of memory,” he adds. “We want to understand what gets remembered and what gets forgotten.”

Scholars Spent a Year Scrutinizing America's Monuments. Here's What They Learned
This Stonewall Jackson statue, which once stood along Richmond's Monument Avenue, was taken down in summer 2020. Paul Joseph via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

The team’s findings throw into sharp relief what many have long suspected to be the case: America’s monuments overwhelmingly honor white men.

Of the top 50 most-represented individuals, only 5 are Black or Indigenous: civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (4th); abolitionist and Underground Railroad “conductor” Harriet Tubman (24th); Shawnee chief Tecumseh (25th), who led Native American resistance to colonialism; Lemhi Shoshone explorer Sacagawea (28th); and abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass (29th). (No U.S.-born Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander or self-identified LGBTQ people appear in the top 50, per the audit.)

Half of the top 50 were enslavers, among them many U.S. presidents. Abraham Lincoln came in first place, appearing 193 times in the sample (a testament to his enduring popularity in the 20th century). He was followed closely by George Washington (2nd) and Christopher Columbus (3rd).

“The audit shows just how many Americans don't see themselves reflected in public art,” Erin Thompson, a historian at John Jay College, CUNY, and author of a forthcoming book titled Smashing Statues, tells National Geographic’s Andrew Lawler. “Monuments are supposed to inspire us all, so what does it mean when our monuments make it seem like only wealthy white men are deserving of honor?”

Monument Lab’s top 50 includes just three women: Joan of Arc (18th), Tubman and Sacagawea. Outside of the top 50, the most frequently honored women are often European (such as scientist Marie Curie), saints (such as Catholic leader Elizabeth Ann Seton) or both (Joan of Arc).

Scholars Spent a Year Scrutinizing America's Monuments. Here's What They Learned
Alison Saar's 2008 statue Swing Low, dedicated to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, stands in the Harriet Tubman Triangle in Manhattan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Likenesses of female figures often represent mythological or allegorical symbols rather than actual people. This pattern made headlines in August 2020, when a statue of Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the first work to depict real women in New York City’s Central Park in its 167-year-history. (Previously, the park’s only statues of women portrayed fictional figures such as Mother Goose and Alice in Wonderland.) As the audit wryly adds, the survey found that the ratio of statues depicting mermaids to those of U.S. congresswomen is 22 mermaids to 2 lawmakers.

Acts of violence figure heavily in the nation’s monuments. Thirty-three percent of the studied works commemorate war. Comparatively, just a sliver—9 percent—reference veterans.

“[O]ur monuments generally minimize the social and environmental costs of warfare for our veterans, their families and our communities,” the audit’s authors write.

Scholars Spent a Year Scrutinizing America's Monuments. Here's What They Learned
A statue of Christopher Columbus in Providence, Rhode Island, pictured in 2018 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Crucially, the myth of the “Lost Cause” pervades the monument landscape. (Touted by white supremacists, this ahistorical ideology suggests the Civil War was fought over states’ rights rather than slavery.) Of the 5,917 recorded monuments that memorialize the Civil War, just one percent include the word “slavery.”

This trend is the direct result of coordinated campaigns by neo-Confederate groups to erect monuments to Confederate leaders during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the civil rights movement was gathering steam. Commemorative works commissioned by such organizations as the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid “homage to a slave-owning society and [served] as blunt assertions of dominance over” Black Americans, as Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler wrote for Smithsonian magazine in 2018. 

Indigenous and Native American communities are also widely misrepresented in U.S. monuments. Of 916 works dedicated to “pioneers,” just 15 percent mention Native American communities in any capacity.

Viewed in the aggregate, these markers represent “gross distortions over time,” with certain historical events skewed in the service of white colonists, according to Farber.

The scale of historical misinformation and racist exclusion laid bare by the data may be overwhelming. But Farber argues that “America’s monuments have never been frozen in time, beyond contact or reproach.”

Scholars Spent a Year Scrutinizing America's Monuments. Here's What They Learned
The Lincoln Memorial under construction, circa 1928 Library of Congress

Early colonists demonstrated this on July 9, 1776, when they toppled a statue of England’s George III—the first such removal recorded in the young nation’s history. The spate of monument removals seen in the past year is nothing new.

On one of the final days of edits for the audit, Farber witnessed another monument’s removal up close. Page proofs in hand, he stood with a crowd of hundreds gathered to see an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee taken down in Richmond, Virginia.

City workers carefully lifted the 21-foot-tall statue off its pedestal and cut the Confederate general’s torso from his body. As crowds cheered, the crew loaded the disassembled sections onto truck beds before driving them to an undisclosed storage unit.

Farber celebrates changes such as these. But he’s also eagerly looking forward to the monuments that artists have yet to design and install.

As Farber noted in a recent conversation with Mellon Foundation director Elizabeth Alexander, the audit’s authors hope their research provides a tool for the next generation of scholars, artists and activists to create new public spaces and symbols of their own.

“We really want to see this country engage in a holistic reckoning, in big and small ways, with these monumental erasers and lies,” Farber tells Smithsonian. “We want to see a landscape that more fully acknowledges the history of this country.”