Statues, monuments, memorials, and museums—and the events and people they represent—may become societal or even interstate flashpoints. They also have the potential to help heal wounds, educate the public, and inform policymaking as leaders seek to address historic wrongs, bridge divisions, and build a shared future.
As the debate over U.S. statues and memorials intensified, the Helsinki Commission convened a hearing on “Values Made Visible” to examine what the United States conveys to the world through its public monuments and memorials and how acknowledgment of the past can encourage restitution, reparations, and restorative justice. Commissioner Rep. Gwen Moore (WI- 04) chaired the hearing.
Testimony was received from Kevin Gover, Acting Undersecretary for Museums and Culture for the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex; Princess Maria-Esmeralda of Belgium; former OSCE Secretary General and High Commissioner on National Minorities Lamberto Zannier; and former Vice Mayor of Charlottesville Dr. Wes Bellamy.
Rep. Moore observed that the Helsinki Commission has frequently encouraged other OSCE participating States to address difficult chapters of their histories, and called out those who propagate revisionism, distort the past for contemporary political purposes, stoke grievances against their neighbors, or persecute civil society, scholars, or journalists who write about uncomfortable truths. The Helsinki Commission also has supported the preservation of sensitive sites of remembrance, including Auschwitz; supported access to archives; and encouraged governmental and public officials’ efforts to acknowledge past wrongs and heal societal divisions. Rep. Moore concluded that the United States must make our values more visible in the public places administered on behalf of the American people.
Undersecretary Gover used four prominent, albeit controversial, sculptures at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House, an historic building in Manhattan that is part of the Smithsonian Institution, as the references points for his remarks. Like many other monuments across the U.S. landscape, if they serve as “a provocation for meaningful public conversation and reckoning, they have value. In the absence of such a conversation, they are mere monuments to White supremacy and should not remain.”
“In the late 19th and early 20th century, one of the most successful gaslighting operations in world history was taking place with the invention of the mythical ‘lost cause’ to explain the Civil War. The monuments were part of that but it was really quite a comprehensive propaganda operation. . . It feels like these young people today were taught something different, or at least that they didn’t buy that old narrative. And so they’re going to lead us into a new and better place with regard to our public spaces.”
—Acting Undersecretary Kevin Gover. Previously, as Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the United States Department of the Interior, Mr. Gover issued an apology to Native American people on behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the historical conduct of the bureau.
Princess Esmeralda noted that the brutal murder of George Floyd has compelled an acknowledgment of institutionalized racism stemming from colonialism and slave trade.
“In the wake of the homicide of George Floyd, statues started to be unbolted and removed… Unbolting the statues of Leopold II was part of a desire to expunge a past written with partiality by the colonizer,” she said.
Princess Esmeralda also noted that King Phillippe of Belgium sent a letter to President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, expressing his deep regrets for the acts of violence and atrocities. The letter was preceded by a vote in the Belgian Parliament agreeing to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, which will also include opening some previously closed archives.
Ambassador Zannier discussed the potential for differing historical narratives to create internal friction within a state as well as friction between states. He also observed that nations rely heavily on historical interpretation to create a common sense of purpose and belonging.
“The situation changes when societies are diverse, and when a symbol, or a monument, with the name of the street becomes provocative for part of the population,” he said.
Ambassador Zannier also underscored the importance of key OSCE principles regarding the promotion of human rights, the fight against discrimination and racism, and protection of minority rights. He encouraged the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to engage on these issues.
Dr. Bellamy, who led the effort to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from his city’s parks, underscored the historic context for the erection of many of the statues glorifying the Confederacy, such as those erected in Charlottesville in 1924. He argued that the messages communicated through those statues will not be changed until such statues are removed and reflected in the allocation of public resources.
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- Briefing: Truth, Reconciliation, and Healing
- OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities: Contested Historical Legacies in Public Spaces
- OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities: Open Letter on Symbols in Public Spaces