“Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts,” Paul Simon once sang.
He never sang, though, about what happens to those heroes when the next generation comes along.
Several generations ago, our forefathers — and foremothers, too, for that matter — threw their heroes up in granite, bronze and marble. And they meant for them to stay, too. Virginia even passed a law saying so. Now comes a new generation who wants to bring them down. One of the consequences of the Democrats’ takeover of the General Assembly will be a renewed debate over that state law that blocks local governments from taking down its Confederate monuments.
This raises some fascinating philosophical questions, among them: How much can one generation dictate to others yet to come? Thomas Jefferson himself pondered that question in a different context. In 1789, he wrote to James Madison: “Whether one generation of men has a right to bind another. . . . is a question of such consequences as not only to merit decision, but place also, among the fundamental principles of every government.” Jefferson went on to write: “I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, ‘that the earth belongs . . . to the living,’ that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”
Does that mean Jefferson would have been in favor of tearing down Confederate statues? Perhaps someone should go ask him.
Instead, let’s skip over the unpleasant but perhaps necessary debate over whether the General Assembly should give localities the power over their own property, and move on to a different question. What happens when it does? More to the point, once some localities start taking down Confederate statues, where will they go?
We don’t ask this lightly, because it’s not a light question at all. The Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond weighs eight tons. Lee is 14 feet tall; the whole statue — Lee, horse, the base — is 60 feet tall.
That’s one of the larger statues you’ll find of anyone anywhere. By contrast, the Lee statue in Charlottesville that’s become a rallying point for white supremacists is 26 feet tall. We’re not sure how much it weighs, but it’s clearly not something you can haul away in a pickup truck and put in your backyard.
So what will become of Confederate statues that get taken down?
If the General Assembly passes a bill giving local governments the power to take them down (which it probably will) and Gov. Ralph Northam signs it (which he’s indicated he would), and the bill takes effect on the normal legislative schedule, that means some might come down as early as next July.
Somebody might want to be figuring out now where they’ll go.
Earlier this year, Northam told The Washington Post “if there are statues, if there monuments out there that provoke this type of hatred and bigotry, they need to be in museums.”
Is that realistic, though? Not many museums have rooms with ceilings that high (or, floors able to withstand that much weight). They could go outside, of course, but how many museums have that much outdoor space? Most history museums — most museums of any sort — are woefully under-funded institutions operating in cramped quarters. To say “they need to be in museums” is a good line rhetorically but not really a practical response.
In August, the website Salon surveyed many of the localities that have taken down Confederate statues — from Gainesville, Florida, to Helena, Montana. The generic Confederate statue in Gainesville was sent to a private cemetery. Dallas put its Lee statue up for bid; it was sold for $1.4 million to a Texas lawyer. It’s now on display at a golf course near the Mexican border. The rest appear to simply be in storage — in the proverbial “undisclosed location” — because the local governments didn’t know what else to do and haven’t figured out anything else.
One prevailing theme: Museums didn’t want the statues. Christy Coleman, CEO of the American Civil War Museum in Richmond, told National Public Radio that she gets lots of calls from localities hoping her museum will take their Confederate moments. “Truth is, we absolutely could not take them,” she said. “The biggest reason, I’d say, that museums aren’t able to accept them is that they simply can’t afford to take care of them.”
What cost is there in a statue that’s been standing outside for more than a century? The history museum in Gainesville tallied up the potential cost of taking care of that city’s Confederate statue. One big cost was insurance. And then the cost of creating a new exhibit space in which to display the statue. Total cost: $36,000. That’s real money to museums that often operate on the financial edge, anyway. The museum said “thanks, but no thanks.” And that was a 6-foot statue on an 18-foot base.
So don’t count on seeing these statues shipped off to museums. Some people, of course, might think the best solution is to get rid of them completely. Melt them down. Bust them into smithereens. That seems wrong on many levels — be it history or art history. We don’t want to be like the Taliban, which once rolled in tanks and anti-aircraft missile launchers to blast some historic statues of the Buddha. Even if we don’t think these statues should occupy venerated public spaces, we shouldn’t simply destroy them. It’s important they be somewhere so future generations understand why they were erected in the first place — hence the “put them in museums” reflex.
Eastern Europe wrestled with the question of what to do with Communist-era statues after the fall of the Iron Curtain — and continues to wrestle with it still. Some were torn down immediately. Many others remain but are in still in the process of being torn down, three decades later.
And then there’s what Hungary did. Many of its communist statues were taken down and hauled out to a field outside Budapest, where they sat for four years. Then Hungary decided to turn the junk lot into a museum about the horrors of communism, a very different interpretation of the statues than what the communists intended when they put them up. Today Memento Park — Hungarian for Memorial Park — draws about 40,000 visitors a year. The architect who designed the park, Ákos Eleod, describes the rationale for keeping the statues and putting them on display this way: “Democracy is the only regime which is capable of looking back to its past, with all its mistakes and wrong turns, with its head up.”