Towering above us in bronze and stone, monuments can inspire awe, curiosity, and outrage. But can they also help us heal? That is the proposition of one museum in Texas, which has decided to house and exhibit a Confederate statue on its premises so that visitors might confront the legacy of slavery head-on. “Spirit of the Confederacy,” a bronze sculpture of an angel holding a sword and palm branch, was removed from Sam Houston Park in June in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and is now on display in the courtyard of the Houston Museum of African American Culture (HMAAC).
“As an educational space, we wanted people to think about it and engage with it,” said John Guess, the museum’s Chief Executive Officer. In an interview with Hyperallergic, he emphasized that the institution is known for its community engagement — putting up murals and “mask up” signs in schools and low income areas during COVID-19, for instance — as well as for encouraging difficult conversations around race. Guess hopes that the statue can become a site of reflection and dialogue, where people of color can feel empowered to influence its interpretation and reception, and potentially even rename the work.
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“Spirit of the Confederacy” was created by sculptor Louis Amateis and erected in 1908 by the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The monument was commissioned in the midst of tightening segregation measures in Texas, five years after the city had imposed separate streetcar compartments for white and Black passengers and adopted a poll tax that excluded or discouraged many Black voters.
“Healing comes from taking control of negatively impactful symbols and turning them into teaching opportunities to help ensure they never have power again,” said Guess.
Debate around monuments that glorify the Confederacy has intensified since historic demonstrations against anti-Black violence broke out this year, but Guess says the seed for the acquisition was planted much earlier, when Mayor Sylvester Turner, who is Black, appointed a task force to review Houston’s Confederate monuments in 2017. Turner asked if the museum would take a statue, and Guess agreed so long as it was a sculpture of “a philosophy and not a person” — a work that would allow visitors to face the tenets of the racist movement without dealing with its individual representation.
“I seriously doubt the museum would have had the opportunity to get ‘The Spirit’ if Sylvester Turner was not our mayor,” said Guess. “I think that factors in to why we are the only African American museum to have his opportunity to unpack a symbol of white supremacy.” (The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, which keeps a database of public symbols of the Confederacy, confirmed that “Spirit of the Confederacy” is the only symbol listed as “relocated” that has been moved to an African American cultural institution.)
Surrounded by new fencing so that it is not visible from the street, the contentious statue is joined by a group of sculptures of eyeballs by Bert Long Jr., a Black artist from Houston. “Those eyes reflect Black Americans, eyes of color that are constantly looking at it,” said Guess.
As monuments commemorating figures of the Confederacy continue to come down in cities across the nation, increasingly viewed as symbols of a racist past that persists violently into the present, the museum’s decision has struck some as controversial. Dr. James Douglas, president of the Houston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), condemned the move, calling the statue’s relocation to the museum “a slap in the face to African Americans.”
John Edwin Mason, a professor African history and photographic history at the University of Virginia and a Hyperallergic contributor, said he was surprised the museum wanted to take in a Confederate monument.
“Most of them have very little aesthetic value and tend to be very large. How do you display these statues in a way that doesn’t make it an object of veneration?” he told Hyperallergic. One common objection to such monuments, Mason said, is that their scale and elevation force spectators to crane their neck upwards, assuming a position of veneration. He continued:
In order to contextualize them within their histories of white supremacies and the mythology of the lost cause of the south — you have to demystify them. Will they bring them down to ground level, so that you can look these men in the eye? How do you overwhelm the power of the statue of itself? How do you prevent them from becoming sites of pilgrimage for white supremacists?
Mason points out that there are very few successful recontextualizations of Confederate monuments. He cites as a rare example the Robert E. Lee memorial at the center of Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, which has been painted over, projected on, and otherwise repurposed during the recent protests, transformed into a powerful emblem of insurgency. (Although the surrounding Confederate statues on the mall have come down, Lee’s likeness remains, its removal stalled by a court order.)
“The spontaneous recontextualization is more than just the graffiti on the base of the statue; more than just the community garden that a church group has created within the circle; more than the basketball hoops that have been installed informally on it, and the basketball that is always there if someone wants to shoot some hoops,” said Mason.
“It’s the way people are using it and the way that it’s been opened up. There’s not an artist or architect or art historian who could have planned something so effective,” he said, adding that he supports the statue’s removal.
Guess acknowledges the divisive views and complexities of exhibiting the statue. “Our responses to these monuments come from a sense of pain, they’re symbols of what was done to us, of a philosophy that says we’re less than human,” Guess told Hyperallergic. But by “taking control” of the image, he argues, the museum and its visitors can process some of that pain.
Engaging the community in Houston and beyond in dialogue is key to that goal: in October 2019, HMAAC hosted a symposium titled “Lest We Forget: A National Conversation with the Confederacy,” and started a fellowship program for a resident artist to create projects related to the statue. The museum is also encouraging people to send a one-minute video expressing their perspective in an effort to build a shared history.
When asked about the cost of maintaining the sculpture and whether the expense may dip into the pockets of taxpayers — some of whom may be against its relocation — Guess stressed that the piece would remain untouched. He added that HMAAC, which welcomes 50,000 visitors annually, is the only African American museum in the country that does not receive public funds for its building and operations, relying instead on private funding.
“There was a suggestion to us that we shine it up. That’s the last thing we’re going to do,” he said. “We’re going to keep it the same way it’s been for 100 years — nothing’s done to it. We’re not going to treat it any differently than it’s been treated in the past.”