About Monuments and History: Let’s Learn from the Confederate Memorial in Helena

One of the most interesting places I’ve traveled over the past few years was Memento Park in Budapest, an open-air museum filled with the detritus of Soviet rule over Eastern Bloc countries. There’s nothing the Soviets seemed to enjoy more than depositing gigantic statues of heroic communist workers, soldiers, and statesmen all over the countries they ruled over and there was nothing the people of those countries seemed to enjoy more in the first days of their freedom than toppling those statues. Memento Park is a tourist sight constructed to display those fallen monuments and talk about the time when the people of Eastern European countries had little control over their destinies. As one of the architects of the site noted:

“This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

If you want to see a Soviet-era statue, this is one of the few places left where you can. In the capitals of former Soviet Bloc countries I visited, there are few of these statues on display other than some very complicated and contentious memorials to Soviet dead from World War 2. I saw empty pedestals and heard stories about how thrilled the people of Prague were when their statue of Stalin went down in the 1960s. Memento Park isn’t just a collection of Soviet oddities; it offers a full educational program about the era and, critically, the purpose of those statues when they were placed by the Soviets.

This summer, I had the opportunity to visit museums in Riga, Latvia, and Vilnius, Lithuania that were constructed on the site of buildings that had previously housed the KGB. As we toured through ruins where men and women had been jailed, beaten, tortured, and even killed, the guides offered both a series of facts about what had happened in those horrific rooms and conveyed the emotions of what it had been like for the people to live under those conditions. We learned about the horrors of the Nazi and Soviet occupation of the Baltic countries, all of us leaving with a much great appreciation for how the events of that time still reverberated in Latvian and Lithuanian society today.

Seeing those empty pedestals, viewing those massive statues, and reeling from the impact of the KGB cells and killing rooms made me even more appreciative of the importance of preserving history, something I’ve always believed in. We absolutely must never forget the terrible moments in our history both remind us of how horrific and inhuman human behavior can be.

Of course, we must preserve our history. Of course, we must, in a democracy, discuss our past. But the Confederate Memorial in Helena did neither. The Daughters of the Confederacy who placed it and hundreds of other memorials around the country were the ones in the business of causing us to forget, hoping that the placement of monuments that obscured the causes of the Civil War would transform our collective memory. And they largely succeeded in that agenda, as evidenced by those who somehow believe that the South was not primarily motivated by slavery despite the words of the very men who led the secession from our country.

Like Soviet statues designed to obscure the brutality of Communist rule and celebrate Soviet soldiers, these monuments served the aims of propaganda, not history.

It’s a red herring to suggest that the people who cheered the removal of the Confederate Memorial Fountain in Helena wanted to destroy history or forget it. Many of us believe that it should be preserved in a museum setting so that it can become a teaching tool, not only about the soldiers who died during the Civil War but about the efforts during the Jim Crow era to whitewash Confederate history. Placed in a museum, in an appropriate context and explained by historians who can dissect the fountain and its motives, the memorial can finally transform from a symbol of a dark time in our history to an educational tool that helps to explain it.

Having visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture this spring, I’m almost certain no one is calling for the removal of the slave quarters or Emmett Till’s casket from its hallways. No one wants to remove its displays of racist caricatures, minstrel shows, or lynchings because all of those are presented with context that explains what their purpose was.  None of that was ever in place at the Confederate Memorial at Hill Park and it seems unlikely that a plaque could ever have provided the context necessary to explain it.

The irony of those who celebrate an imagined, ahistorical version of Confederate history suggesting that others want to destroy history is tragically ill-informed. Citing Orwell, as some have while celebrating a piece of propaganda, is as darkly humorous as much of his writing and a tragic reminder that we need to do a better job of educating people about thought control and manipulation.

Let’s stop fighting about this monument and start learning from it, in context and with the guidance of experts.

The director of the Montana Historical Society expressed his concern about the potential loss of history with the removal of the fountain. Let’s hope he can be taken at his word and will offer to take and display the fountain in an exhibit that lets us learn about the Daughters of the Confederacy and the era in which they were constructing these memorials. Perhaps he can organize a fundraiser for the display, given the passionate regard for history that seemed to be lacking when funding for the Montana Historical Society’s funding was under debate this winter, but so on display this week.

Perhaps we can transform a debate that has become increasingly bitter and personal over the past week into a moment in our history we can one day celebrate, when the people of Helena came together to preserve their collective history together rather than letting another skirmish in the American cultural civil war divide us even further.

I’m ready to donate for a new exhibit. Let’s make it happen, Helena.