Last weekend I attended a fundraising event for the Atlanta History Center during which I got to sip bourbon and take in the new Cyclorama exhibit. I must say, this Midwestern transplant has rarely felt so Southern. For those who haven’t heard of it, the Cyclorama is a massive, circular painting that depicts the 1864 Battle of Atlanta. 49 feet tall and longer than a football field, all hand-painted, the work is impressive in terms of scale and detail. But what was so striking about this particular exhibit was how thoughtfully it tells, not just a story of the legendary battle, but a fuller story of the painting itself and how it has had many changing meanings in its 132 years.
“Atlanta History Center uses this restored work of art and entertainment, and the history of the painting itself, as a tool to talk about the ‘big picture.’ How can perceptions, memory and interpretations be shaped, or mis-shaped, by a combination of art and entertainment, myth and memory, cultural context, and current events during different eras?”
Presenting the Cyclorama in this way, as itself an artifact rather than an attraction or a celebratory monument, is a way to dispel civil war myths. The Atlantic did a really nice piece on the new exhibit that tells some of the story of the painting. It conveys how the Atlanta History Center has succeeded in using the story of the painting’s history to reflect on the status of monuments and their function in remembering, or misremembering, historical figures and events in a way that serves the powerful’s desired messaging in the present. I love how the contextualization itself allows for an ongoing conversation to open up. It invites reflection and dialogue on the stories we continue to tell today; what are they? Whose voices are most prominent? What are the vessels for these stories? So what I got to experience was a piece of Southern history with a modern twist. (But no twist for the bourbon; the bourbon was neat.)
I attended this event on Saturday evening. The Friday before, Governor Kemp signed a bill protecting Confederate monuments. The bill allows local governments to sue vandals who deface monuments, it also bans moving the monuments from prominent locations to museums. This bill was introduced alongside contrasting bills aimed to assist communities that wish to remove or relocate Confederate monuments. One aimed to block public money and land being used for such markers, and another aimed to transfer control of monuments from state to local governments, but neither made it out of committee. During the signing of the bill, Gov Kemp indicated that historical monuments may not reflect our values but we can learn from them. He signed the bill at Gordon Lee High School. Gordon Lee was the son of a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate army, and the grandson of a slave owner who purchased his land in the lottery sale of Cherokee homelands. Kemp did not name the civil war during his remarks. He did not acknowledge what exactly should be learned from the monument dedicated to a Confederate veteran, located on the property adjacent to the high school, in front of a mansion built by slaves. Most monuments are not accompanied by full historical accounting of when, why, or by whom they were erected, but Kemp did not indicate any need for a concerted effort to contextualize the monuments, nor for a plan for how to go about learning from them.
At the event on Saturday, I had the opportunity to ask Sheffield Hale, the Atlanta History Center’s director, what he thought about these legal efforts to protect Confederate monuments. He said that if the monuments cannot be removed, then they need to be presented with more robust and easily available contextual information. He stressed the importance on the kind of reflection I described above. He directed me toward the Atlanta History Center’s resources to help communities navigate the contentious conversation this requires. They includes some information on the context during which most of the monuments were erected, and a template for how communities can go about adding context to the information that accompanies the monuments. Interested readers should take a look at the template here. It is a fantastic resource! Mr. Hale made the point, though, to say that unless the option to remove or relocate the monuments remains on the table, communities cannot have a full conversation on the topic of their significance. While on-site contextualization may be appropriate for some monuments, on my view, removal is appropriate for many other prominently located monuments. I will describe some reasons why in an upcoming post!