Amid a national reckoning on systemic racism and police brutality, communities across the United States are debating whether sculptures of slaveholders, Confederate leaders and other controversial figures can be displayed without lionizing the individuals they represent.
“There is a need for our folks to heal. The way you get rid of the pain is to not bury it as if it had never existed, but to confront it and engage with it,” John Guess Jr., the museum’s CEO emeritus, tells the AP. “This allows our community to do [that].”
In June, following protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, city officials removed a bronze statue called Spirit of the Confederacy from Sam Houston Park. Sculpted by Italian artist Louis Amateis, the 12-foot-tall monument, which depicts a winged angel swathed in palm leaves, was erected in 1908 by the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Following a brief stint in storage, the sculpture found a new home at the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMMAC), where it stands in a fenced courtyard opposite a collection of sculpted eyeballs by local artist Bert Long Jr.
“The eyes of Black America are staring at this statue, at this philosophy,” says Guess to the AP. “We are having a standoff.”
Speaking with Hyperallergic’s Valentina de la Liscia, Guess says that displaying the statue may enable people to heal from systemic racism by giving them the opportunity to learn about the artwork’s history. In 2019, the museum hosted a series of talks titled “Lest We Forget: A National Conversation With the Confederacy”; it also created a fellowship that allows for a resident artist to make pieces that engage with the statue.
“Healing comes from taking control of negatively impactful symbols and turning them into teaching opportunities to help ensure they never have power again,” Guess tells Hyperallergic.
Some, however, argue that displaying controversial statues does more harm than good.
Reflecting on the museum’s planned installation in June, James Douglas, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said, “I don’t believe that a statue honoring individuals that fought to continue the enslavement of my people and destroy this nation of ours should exist anywhere on the face of the Earth.”
In response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of police brutality, many black Americans have called for the removal of Confederate monuments across the country. Between Floyd’s death on May 25 and August 19, notes Molly Glentzer for the Houston Chronicle, 59 such sculptures were removed—a higher figure than the previous three years combined.
Though supporters of keeping Confederate statues on view often “claim that today’s objections to the monuments are merely the product of contemporary political correctness, they were actively opposed at the time, often by African Americans, as instruments of white power,” wrote Brian Palmer and Seth Freed Wessler in a 2018 Smithsonian magazine investigation on the costs of the Confederacy.
“Far from simply being markers of historic events and people, as proponents argue, these memorials were created and funded by Jim Crow governments to pay homage to a slave-owning society and to serve as blunt assertions of dominance over African Americans,” the pair added.
In his interview with the AP, Guess acknowledged that displaying Confederate monuments can cause discomfort but maintained that it is necessary to discuss their legacies.
He added, “We don’t get past that pain and get to healing without at times confronting them.”
Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which catalogs Confederate monuments around the U.S., agrees with Guess’ sentiment.
“One of the problems with these huge outdoor statues is that they don’t say anything. There’s no context,” she tells the Chronicle.
By placing Spirit of the Confederacy in an African American museum, Brooks says, the statue gains “a whole new story.”
For now, the monument—surrounded by fencing to ensure passersby can’t see it from the street—remains inaccessible to the public. Per the Chronicle, the recontexualized Spirit of the Confederacy will make its debut via a new, interactive website in the near future. Eventually, the AP notes, visitors will be permitted to view the sculpture in person by appointment.