Statues Are Not History

The current debate over removing or leaving in place statues of people (okay, mostly white men) who did something in history should be thought of as ‘should we revere these people? Or should we leave them to history to explain in all their human foibles?

Take Teddy Roosevelt for example. The statue in front of the NYC Museum of Natural History shows the man on horseback, with an indigenous man and an African man on either side is to be taken down. People are complaining that he did so much for science, for the country in general, that we should leave the statue in place. But this statue glorifies the colonialism that made the indigenous and African people lesser in many eyes.

Humans are not perfect. We’ve glorified people as heroes who really have many foibles and problems with their actions Statues of Confederate generals or 19th and 20th century politicians have their place in museums. Not in public. Statues do not tell the whole history of the person’s deeds in life. They simply glorify one part of the person.

This is a problem.

We as human beings need to look at who we create statues of and how people are portrayed. If a statue can tell a tale of woe and sorrow as well as that of triumph, then its a statue that should be on display in public. If it only tells the triumphal tale, then its a statue that belongs in a museum, and then it can be placed in context with other things that show that person’s whole life. And we as humans can look, see, understand and make our own judgments about this person’s life.

Teddy Roosevelt was not just science. He was a politician, a military general, and a product of the times he lived in. Which is to say he reveled in the colonial foot of the Victorian/Edwardian Western European ideals. White men were the top of the chain, and needed to guide the ‘lesser’ peoples native to the lands that Europeans colonized. This mindset can be learned about through history, and should not be glorified.

Lots of statues need to come down. They can be put into better context in museum displays that show other aspects of the lives these people led and the actions they took. And textbooks need to be written and used that show both sides of these historical figures. Teddy Roosevelt did much for the political-social reform movements in the US while he was president, but he also justified colonialism, attacked a country (Cuba) as a military leader where the attack was unfounded, and behaved within his own family as a distant father and husband. Flawed, he still needs to be read about and understood in the context of the world he lived in.

Take down the public statues that today glorify things that should not be glorified. Replace them with new statues that tell both sides if possible. Or give the public space over to something new. We can tell new tales in metal and stone, and there are ideas that are just waiting to be shaped.

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