Public monuments embody the values and collective memory of a society. Think, for example, of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor. It’s supposed to represent the ideals of liberty and openness to the world that are cherished by many Americans. For over a century, its torch has been a symbol of the country’s welcome to immigrants and refugees.
But societies change, and the values that certain monuments once represented no longer hold true. In 2017, debates over statues commemorating famous figures of the Confederacy (the secessionist state that fought to maintain slavery during the American Civil War) roiled the United States. To many Americans, Confederate monuments like the one below of General Robert E. Lee celebrate the hateful ideology of white supremacy. After all, most of these Confederate statues were put up well after the Civil War ended, often during the Jim Crow era. More than memorializing the “heroes” of the Civil War, they were erected as reminders to African Americans that white supremacy was still very much alive.
Some critics would destroy these monuments altogether, dispatch them to the rubbish heap of history. There are times when this course of action may be the best one, but, in some cases, monuments from the past can be changed or reinvented to serve useful purposes in the present.
In 1956, Hungarians rose up in rebellion against their Soviet-backed Communist government. During the violence, statues of Soviet figures like Stalin were torn down. Below, a photo from 1956 shows all that remains of the once towering statue: Stalin’s boots.
In 1991, after the end of the Cold War, Hungarians decided not to erase the memory of the Communist years. Instead, they can be found in Memento Park, an open-air museum in Budapest that is full of Soviet monuments. The pedestal with Stalin’s boots – shorn of the rest of his body – still stands; a broken, reinterpreted reminder for modern Hungarians of the struggles of another time.
Elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, these sorts of commemorative parks are common. “Stalin’s World” or Grutas Park in Lithuania allows locals to recall a dark period in the history of the tiny Baltic country. Fallen Monuments Park in Moscow is a resting place for many Soviet statues and memorials. And off the coast of Crimea, a diver has made an underwater museum of Soviet busts and statuary, to show how the past has been submerged.
Similarly, Indians had to figure out what to do with all the monuments to the British Empire after nearly two centuries of colonial rule. They turned a ceremonial field outside Delhi known as Coronation Park or the “Imperial Durbar”—where grand imperial ceremonies once took place—into a park full of British statues.
The monuments of empire were not destroyed. Instead, they were removed from the public venues that they had once lorded over and then gathered in Coronation Park. This somewhat overgrown park on the outskirts of Delhi now forms a graveyard of imperial statuary. In their new context, the monuments are no longer celebrations of the British Empire, but curious, worn relics of a time when Indians were subjected to colonial rule.
The island nations of the Caribbean all have histories of colonialism and exploitation. In Haiti, a bust of Christopher Columbus was taken from its old pedestal and placed in a museum surrounded by voodoo statues, in part to humble the explorer. Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine came from a slaveholding family on the island of Martinique and encouraged her husband to reinstitute slavery in the Caribbean. Locals in Martinique eventually decapitated this statue of Josephine, but they didn’t take it down. Instead, the headless statue does a kind of double duty; it serves both as a reminder of a time of subjugation and as a symbol of the overthrow of the old order.
Perhaps Americans can learn from these examples when considering what to do with Confederate monuments. Deposed statues could be assembled in an open-air museum where they would help visitors understand how the Confederate past was mythologized. Some activists go a step further, suggesting that Confederate statues should be melted down and turned into sculptures that are better representative of the values of modern America. In the wake of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville in August 2017, cities like Baltimore began quietly taking down their Confederate statues. Those empty pedestals—like Stalin’s boots in Budapest—could remain as they are, the stumps of toppled monuments. That display might make the most eloquent argument about how societies use history. The figures we make into heroes don’t just represent the past, but who we think we are in the present.