A new audit of nearly 50,000 different monuments throughout the US provides insight into how historic figures are memorialized in public spaces.
The research conducted by Monument Lab, a Philadelphia non-profit, found the landscape is dominated by white, male figures, and that you’re more likely to come across a sculpture of a mermaid than a US congresswoman. The project was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, part of a $250 million initiative to “reimagine monuments” that was announced last year. Researchers with Monument Lab, which seeks to illuminate how symbols are connected to “systems of power and public memory,” combed through 48,178 records of publicly available data from sources such as the Smithsonian to complete the audit.
The findings of the audit serve as a reminder that “you are far more likely to run into a symbol of war and conquest than you are to community building, public health, or education,” says Paul Farber, the director of Monument Lab and co-director of the audit.
Martin Luther King Jr. is among the five most memorialized historical figures, according to the audit, but the number of US monuments honoring the civil rights leader is still dwarfed by those recognizing Christopher Columbus.
Only five of the top 50 most common historic figures honored by US monuments were Black or Native American, including King, Harriet Tubman, and Sacagawea, who accompanied the explorers Lewis and Clark on their expedition of the American West. The audit documents 22 monuments to mermaids, but just two to US congresswomen—one for Texas representative Barbara Charline Jordan, and another memorializing New Jersey representative Millicent Fenwick.
“Even by asking simple questions of our inherited monuments, you start to see just how they have misrepresented our history,” Farber continues. He noted that while the team reviewed nearly 6,000 records documenting monuments tied to Civil War history, just 1% mentioned the word “slavery.” “What that tells you is a major current of American history has been misremembered across vast spaces.”
It can take time to reimagine how figures are memorialized in public spaces—the first monuments to women did not appear in Central Park until 2019. But last year a number of statues around the world were quickly toppled, including a monument to slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, and a Belgian statue of King Leopold II, whose colonial campaign in the Congo resulted in millions of deaths. Just last month, a 12-ton Robert E. Lee statue was removed from a public square in Richmond.
Farber says he hopes the monument project helps people think about what the next generation of monuments may look like: “Our hope is that this will be outdated in the next few years…we want to see people utilize the audit, read it, and engage [with] it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story said the monument audit was a partnership conducted with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The story has been updated to state the audit was funded by the Mellon Foundation, but it did not not issue the findings in partnership with Monument Lab.