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What should replace Baltimore's Confederate monuments?

In the aftermath of Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh’s decision to remove several statues memorializing the Confederacy and its leaders from sites around the city, local artists, activists and educators are asking what, if anything, should replace those now discredited monuments.

There’s no easy answer to that question, not least because the sculptures’ meaning for us today is so different from the meaning they were intended to convey at the time they were created, when the ideology of white supremacy and the economic and political subjugation of black people were such seemingly permanent features of the cultural landscape that they went largely unquestioned by most Americans.

Yet today we no longer celebrate the “Lost Cause” that aimed to perpetuate African slavery, nor do we unthinkingly insist on glorifying the Southern military leaders who would have torn the Union apart to protect the right of some men to own fellow human beings. Whatever comes next can’t help but be informed by that tragic history, but it also should transcend it. Public art is one of the ways we can honor those who dedicated their lives to the cause of human freedom even though their contributions have often gone unrecognized.

We don’t presume to dictate what kind of art, if any, should replace the Confederate monuments and memorials that have been taken down recently in Maryland and elsewhere. Fundamentally that’s a decision that should be made by local officials in close consultation with the communities they represent in a process that, almost by definition, will be unique to each jurisdiction. That process is underway here, with community members offering suggestions for what to do with the public spaces vacated by the removal of Confederate monuments that ranged from leaving them empty to re-purposing them as contemporary celebrations of the diversity that is this country’s richest historical endowment.

Leaving the sites empty except for their pedestals might be a perfectly acceptable course to take for now, especially if the very absence of the monuments and memorials themselves prompt visitors to explore why they were removed and what message their presence originally conveyed. An empty site could by itself spark a conversation with viewers about all those whose impact on history has not been recognized in bronze or marble, given that women and minorities traditionally have been under-represented as subjects of historical monuments and memorials. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas and Thurgood Marshall have long been recognized as courageous, historically important figures deserving of recognition. But there are hundreds of other lesser known names whose toil in the trenches for liberty represented invaluable contributions to the struggle for equal rights.

That’s not to say any new works on the sites need to be representational sculptures in the style of the monuments they replace. The double equestrian Lee-Jackson sculpture opposite the Baltimore Museum of Art in Wyman Park, for example, was forged in the classical-realist style of the European Old Masters, but it could just as easily be replaced by a contemporary minimalist or conceptual work of art that speaks to the ideas we wish to celebrate.

What’s important is that the choice should involve decisions that engage the surrounding community as much as possible rather than be determined (as the Lee-Jackson sculpture apparently was) by one or two rich patrons with eccentric ideas.

Public monuments and memorials are supposed to represent history we wish to venerate and values we seek to encourage, but in order to realize that purpose their meanings must be broadly acceptable to the people who have to live with them. We can’t change what happened in the past, but we can transform its meaning for the present, and rethinking our public monuments and memorials is as good a place as any to start.

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