Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy at New-York Historical Society Examines How Monuments Shape Public Consciousness and Our Shared History
Highlights include contemporary works by Alison Saar, Kara Walker, and Barbara Chase-Riboud as well as fragments of the George III statue torn down in 1776
On View January 28 – July 3, 2022
New York, NY, December 7, 2021—The New-York Historical Society presents Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy—on view January 28 – July 3, 2022—an exhibition that explores monuments and their representations in public spaces as flashpoints of fierce debate over national identity, politics, and race that have raged for centuries. Offering a historical foundation for understanding today’s controversies, Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy features fragments of a statue of King George III torn down by American Revolutionaries, a souvenir replica of a bulldozed monument by Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage, and a maquette of New York City’s first public monument to a Black woman (Harriet Tubman), among other objects from the Museum’s collection. The exhibition reveals how monument-making and monument-breaking have long shaped American life as public statues have been celebrated, attacked, protested, altered, and removed. The Thomas Jefferson statue on loan from City Hall will go on view beginning in April in a related installation. As a group, the objects broach a range of pressing topical issues, from leadership to morality, gender, religion, and racism.
“For decades, historians have debated the public memorialization of historical figures and events,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “Some have argued that monuments which can be interpreted as symbolizing racism and oppression should be removed from public view; others contend that erasing the past is not the solution to injustice. This exhibition invites visitors to consider the questions that are at the heart of the current controversy, and the history that has shaped today's discussions and debates.”
The exhibition opens with a beheaded and armless monument to William Pitt, the English statesman who had helped repeal the Stamp Act; the statue was likely vandalized by British soldiers occupying New York during the Revolutionary War. Its placement before a display of photographs of contemporary monuments and monument protests establishes a lineage for current debates that reaches back to the nation’s founding.
Also on view is one of the few surviving fragments from a monument to King George III once installed in Bowling Green. On July 9, 1776, New York colonists—having just listened to a public reading of the new Declaration of Independence, which outlined the “repeated injuries and usurpations” of a king who unleashed “Tyranny over these States”—tore the larger-than-life, gilded-lead equestrian statue from its pedestal, broke it into pieces, stripped off its gold leaf, and repurposed it into 42,088 bullets for the Continental Army. The 18-foot-tall pedestal was left in Bowling Green as a reminder of their hard-won liberation.
Through the augmented reality app Kinfolk, available on an iPad in the gallery, visitors are invited to see new monuments to people who have often been denied historical recognition on an empty pedestal modeled after the one in Bowling Green. Visitors are also invited, via sticky notes, to share their own thoughts about what should stand on a public pedestal, using the recreated plinth as a space for community engagement with questions about the fate and future of monuments.
These pieces are accompanied by Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City (ca. 1852–1853), painted by Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (1823–1909) decades after the event. The painting depicts the patriots’ fight for liberty as they tear down the monument to the monarchy and the tyranny it represented. Yet among the crowd, Oertel includes those—women, a Black man, and an Indigenous family—still denied liberty long after the Revolution as the United States continued to withhold from women the right to vote, practice slavery, and strategically and violently displace Indigenous peoples.
A section of the exhibition focuses on Augusta Savage’s 1939 New York World’s Fair commission, a 16-foot monument to Black music called Lift Every Voice and Sing which depicts 12 young singers in the form of a harp. The only commission at the Fair by a Black woman artist, the sculpture was smashed by bulldozers at the Fair’s end since Savage lacked the funds to cast the plaster statue in bronze and store it. The piece is represented in the exhibition by a small-scale souvenir replica that memorializes the original, soaring sculpture. An audio component features the Harlem Boys Choir singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song that inspired the statue.
Other objects include bronze models of Alison Saar’s Swing Low: Harriet Tubman Memorial, which was installed in Harlem in 2008 as New York City’s first public monument to a Black woman, and Barbara Chase-Riboud’s never-realized monument honoring Sojourner Truth, who escaped slavery in 1826 to become a prominent abolitionist and women’s rights activist. A take on the equestrian monument tradition usually reserved for white male statesmen, the 1999 design shows Truth not astride the horse but rather leading it while holding a lantern aloft.
A model of Kara Walker’s 2018 public sculpture Katastwóf Karavan (Caravan of Catastrophe in Haitian Creole) also appears in the exhibition. The full-sized work, which grapples with the legacy of trauma, was installed at Algiers Point in New Orleans, where slave traders held newly arrived captives before their transfer to slave markets. Walker has said she created the work to call attention to “the catastrophe called slavery and Algiers Point’s nearly forgotten, but pivotal role in its perpetuation.”
Beginning April 2022, in a related installation, the statue of Thomas Jefferson that was recently removed from the council chambers at City Hall will be on view in New-York Historical’s first floor lobby gallery. The statue will be displayed with commentary and historical context from historians. This will include details of Jefferson’s complicated legacy—his contributions as a founder and draftsman of the Declaration of Independence and the contradiction between his vision of human equality and his ownership of enslaved people—and the statue’s original purpose as a tribute to Jefferson’s staunch defense of freedom of religion and separation of church and state.
New-York Historical has developed a suite of complementary programming for K-12 students and educators that uses Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy as a springboard from which to explore the complex history of public memorial in the United States. The programming includes teacher workshops and an audio guide created by students from its Teen Leaders program. On-site field trips to the Museum will also include the exhibition. To learn more about the educational offerings visit nyhistory.org/education or email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about arranging school trips to the exhibition.
Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy is curated by Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto, senior curator of American art. The exhibition is supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art. Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Evelyn & Seymour Neuman Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.
About New-York Historical Society
New York City’s first museum, the New-York Historical Society Museum & Library was founded in 1804. The Patricia D. Klingenstein Library—one of the most distinguished in the nation—fosters research through its outstanding collections, which include more than 10 million items. The Museum presents groundbreaking history and art exhibitions as well as public programs that convey the stories of New York and the nation’s diverse populations to the broadest possible public.
The New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West at Richard Gilder Way (77th Street), New York, NY 10024. Information: (212) 873-3400. Website: nyhistory.org. Follow the museum on social media at @nyhistory on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Tumblr.
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Images: Joseph Wilton (1722-1803). William Pitt, the Elder, First Earl of Chatham (1708-1778), ca. 1770. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mr. Simon F. Mackie.
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