OnWords: Plaques And Statues

Oct 2, 2018

Recent debate over removing Confederate statuary from public spaces illuminates the intersection of words and other forms of expression.

The civil rights activists who have succeeded in getting Confederate statues removed from public places argue that these works celebrate America’s racist past and romanticize the history of slavery.

Their defenders say they represent the reality of American history and to remove them is to deny that history.

Some historians have suggested a compromise: let the statues stay but with plaques explaining their significance and the troubling events that led to their erection.

Explanatory plaques bring up troubling questions themselves, like whether or not anyone will even read them. But more worrisome: do words supplant other forms of expression? As they contextualize, do words skew the viewers’ experiences and detract from what is there?

We’re used to captioned artworks in museums and galleries. How do these verbal explanations impact our relationships with the works? Would we miss them if they were gone?

Words can explain with a certain kind of precision, but they are also no substitute for other expressive forms, and public statues communicate their significance by being public. 

So plaques may bring perspective, but they’re unlikely to heal longstanding wounds.

After all, the plaque on the Statue of Liberty doesn’t contextualize; rather, Emma Lazarus’s poem amplifies the values of the statue itself.  

How about, instead of plaques with words, we commission new statues expressing what we now believe?