Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy

A digital family guide recommended for kids ages 7 and up and their grown-ups.

Public statues have been celebrated, attacked, protested, altered, and removed for generations. Use this family guide in Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy to discover how monuments have impacted our past and how we can reimagine them for the future. 

New Yorkers have always stood up for what they believe in. In 1776, a group gathered and tore down a monument to King George III located at Bowling Green. They destroyed the statue after listening to a recitation (read out loud) of the Declaration of Independence, symbolizing the end of the monarchy’s rule over the American colonies.

Find the painting of the momentous event.

Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1823–1909), Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City, ca. 1852–1853. Oil on canvas, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Samuel Verplanck Hoffman, 1925.6

Look closely at the actions of the people. What are they doing? What are their facial expressions? Act out the scene with your group!  

A few parts of the statue survive. Find the horse’s tail. It’s not made of hair! Once you’ve found it, compare the size of the tail with the painting of the sculpture. Make an estimate. How big do you think the statue was? Now, think about the effort it would have taken to tear it down!

Most of the destroyed statue was melted down to make 42,088 musket balls used during the Revolutionary War. Discuss with your group. What is symbolic about using musket balls made from the King George III statue to fight the British? 

Find the sculpture shown here. 

John Quincy Adams Ward (1830–1910), The Indian Hunter, 1860. Bronze, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mr. George A. Zabriskie, 1939.390

Look closely at the statue. What do you notice about it? Describe it with your family. 

John Quincy Adams Ward was a white sculptor. He created a stereotypical interpretation of an Indigenous person. Ward shows the man as a free-roaming hunter. However, at this same time in U.S. history, American settlers were stealing land from Indigenous people and the government was forcibly relocating them.  

Look at the map behind the statue. Find the label and read it with your family. What does the map tell us about the land?

Read this excerpt from LaVerne Whitebear’s poem “Savages.” Whitebear is Pabaksa Dakota, Wadopana Nakota, and Arikara. 

Is that fear upon your face
Did you not covet this sacred place

The land where children of the stars live
The place where time began

Think about the excerpt from the poem. Whitebear is speaking to white settlers. When you look at the statue, the map, and the poem together, do you learn something new? What is the story they tell as a group?

Today, the U.S. government continues to under-serve Indigenous communities. People living on reservations do not receive the same access to healthcare, schools, or employment opportunities. A large-scale version of this statue sits in Central Park near the Sheep Meadow. What do you think the statue says to people walking by in the Park?

Find the below sculpture.

Augusta Savage (1892–1962), Lift Every Voice and Sing, ca. 1939. White metal cast with a black patina, New-York Historical Society, Coaching Club Acquisition Fund, 2019.90

While you look at the sculpture and the photograph behind it, press the button to listen to the song, “Lift Every Voice and Song.” What is your reaction to hearing this song? If you've heard it before or know it well, what is its meaning for you?

This song was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and declared the Black national anthem in 1919. The song imagines a future where Black Americans are truly free. Its lyrics acknowledge the struggles faced by Black Americans and celebrate their resilience. The song invites people to join together in hope. The artist Augusta Savage used the song and its meaning as inspiration for this sculpture. Describe the sculpture with your family. 

Savage created the plaster harp seen in the photograph for the 1939’s World’s Fair. 

She was the only Black woman to have work displayed. However, at the end of the fair she could not afford to have it cast in bronze. Thus, the sculpture, a monument to Black freedom and hope, was destroyed. Only small souvenir replicas, like the statue you see here, remain today.

Imagine that New York City has decided to re-make Savage’s 16-foot tall sculpture and you get to choose its location! Where do you think it should be placed and why?  

Find the maquette (small study for a larger sculpture).

Alison Saar (b. 1956), Maquette for Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial, 2007, Bronze. New-York Historical Society, Purchase, 2009.34

Look closely at the sculpture. Make a list of your observations. There are a lot of details to notice. Try to find as many as you can before sharing your observations with your family.

Share your knowledge! What do you already know about Harriet Tubman? 

Tubman escaped slavery in 1849. Traveling from the North, she made at least 13 trips back to Maryland to help other enslaved people free themselves. Tubman played an important role in the Underground Railroad. 

Think back on your observations about the statue. How does artist Alison Saar commemorate important parts of Tubman’s life through the statue? 

This is a model for the first public monument in Manhattan to honor a Black woman. The large-scale, final sculpture has stood in Harlem since 2008. As curator Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto says, “new monuments can change history.” Many voices, stories, and even entire groups of people do not have public monuments honoring their experiences. What do you think Ikemoto’s words mean? 

Find the empty pedestal. 

You have explored how monuments can be oppressive, misleading, hopeful, and uplifting. Consider the future. Who do you want to see honored with a monument? Use the nearby post-its to share your ideas. 

Extra! When you get home, download and print out this template. Sketch out the new monument you would like to see in NYC!

Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy is supported by