2020 was such a year, full of so many challenging changes and traumatic events, it seems odd that I had totally blanked during our meet up on the phenomena of the public removal or reconsideration of controversial public art and monuments that took place last year during the Black Lives Matter protests but last year had a lot going on and I did not consider the implications that this event did and continues to have on Public art and historical monuments and how they might make their way into museums.  The list of monuments and memorials removed during the Protests is long, the main table for just some in the US has 106 entries and that does not include ones in the state of Virginia, which has its own table.  


The phenomena took place all over the world and has caused many to reevaluate what all these different historical figures represent to all peoples.  Many monuments were removed by local governments in response to calls for their removal, many others still were toppled by protesters.  A grand total of Thirty Five monuments to/of Christopher Columbus were removed by the Citys, local authorities, property owners or protesters.  Some of these monuments were located in relation to a museum, many were not but several of these monuments are now being moved into museums, as many agree that a museum is the appropriate place for these monuments.  


One of Alaska’s controversial monuments was moved into a local museum with the statue of Alexander Andreyevich Baranov that was installed in Sitka, Alaska. The memorial was vandalized, and was relocated to the Sitka Historical Society and Museum in Harrigan Centennial Hall on September 29, 2020 by a Sitka Assembly vote on the subject.  


I honestly wonder how museum professionals feel about taking in these pieces of public art, I’m sure that it is currently a hot topic with many different viewpoints.  It could be argued that preserving these monuments in a museum only contributes to the valuing of these historical figures or would these pieces be accompanied with the recognition of some of their problematic histories and how they can be oppressive to place in public spaces? 


In Anchorage the former Mayor announced on June 24, 2020 that the decision about removal of the statue of James Cook in downtown Anchorage is up to the Native Village of Eklutna and other area Denaʼina tribes, will this statue be moved into an Alaskan museum?  We will have to see!


This is certainly a controversial topic that has been placed into some museum collections literally, we will have to see how the effects of these events continue to unfold.  I hope that it can be recognized that there is diversity in histories and representation of and honoring of figures who played key parts in oppressive history can continue oppression into the present day. 



Q:  Should these monuments be replaced by new ones? Should the empty spaces be kept to commemorate the removal of these monuments?  What do you hope happens to the Anchorage Captain Cook statue?

5 Thoughts to “The 2020 Public Removal of Controversial Historical Monuments”

  1. Barbara Long

    Hello Erin,
    I attended a conference and field school in Anchorage. I had the opportunity to see this statue. We all know that statues are created to reflect or honor an event or individual/s during a particular time period.To answer all three of your questions: replacing monuments, empty spaces, and the statue should be left up to the communities and their councils to decide the fate of these spaces. Something to consider, is the artist/s craftsmanship. Although, the subject matter may be in question, we need to look at the artist, type of medium and craftsmanship as a work of art rather than the subject matter being offensive. Monuments tell a physical story of the past, without them, we may only have limited bits of history. I realize that for many, it can be a painful memory. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Michael Hubert

    this is a hard topic , the reason I say that in my art history class we debated this for two days and really never came to a general idea of what should be done with these statues or monuments. as for the on in anchorage , I believe they took the plaque down of the monument. which if you don’t know who the state is of you would just think it is some guy. as for what to do with them. if it is cause a group of people pain or hurt to have it up then we need to figure how to fix that issue , wether it be removed, melted down and something else to be created out of it , or no statue at all, but we also have to remember the artist that made it and why it was put up in the first place. I guess there needs to be a balance in the way we proceed in these matter and the only way to do that is to have a open dialogue with everyone to figure out the best way forward.

  3. Angela Linn

    Great post Erin and I’m glad you’re thinking about the potential implications for museums who may end up being the repositories of these controversial statues! One thing about statues like this is that it does provide artists with an opportunity to comment, like Da-ka-xeen Mehner’s amazing work “I Was Not Discovered”: https://www.anchoragemuseum.org/exhibits/arctic-ambitions-captain-cook-and-the-northwest-passage/i-was-not-discovered/
    I also look to people like Joel Isaak who is trying to do something new by changing the face of public sculptures: https://www.knba.org/post/bronze-sculpture-grandma-olga-pays-tribute-denaina-matriarch-heritage
    Public art is fascinating and I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of these discussions!

  4. Tony Thompson

    Hi Erin,
    To answer your question, I agree with what some other folks have said, that it should largely be up to the community and assessed on a case by case basis. These are interesting questions though and ones that I largely hadn’t considered before: What should happen to the empty space once the statue is gone. Commemorating the removal of a harmful piece of public art by leaving the space empty seems nice, but to me is really feels like praising the government for doing the bare minimum of keeping their constituents safe. I feel like putting a statue in a museum could be okay, depending on the level of harm that it represents, but should be placed with disclaimers or information regarding *why* the statue is harmful. Thanks for you post this week! Great questions!

    1. Tony Thompson

      Typos: *it really feels like praising… , *disclaimers and/or information…

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