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December 15, 2017

Moderated Panel Takes Up Issue of Monuments in the 21st Century

“One man’s hero is another man’s anti-hero.”

That seemed to be the consensus of the panelists who took part in a discussion titled “American Memorials in the 21st Century: A Monumental Mess?” hosted by Provost Patricia Beeson Nov. 20 at Posvar Hall.

The comment was made by Christel Temple, chair and associate professor of Africana Studies, who urged those in attendance at the discussion about who is memorialized in statues and public art to consider “what is sacred in each culture’s identity and heritage.”

Provost Beeson convened the four-member panel to further examine issues that came to a head in Charlottesville, Virginia, this past August, where protests and violent and deadly counter-protests erupted amid controversy about whether a Confederate statue should stay or be removed from a public park.

The Nov. 20 moderated discussion was the latest forum in the University Forums on Current Issues series developed earlier this year by the Office of the Provost. The series aims to brings together experts from Pitt and Pittsburgh with the University community for civil discussions about current issues facing society.

Heinz History Center President and panelist Andrew Masich commented that people have been tearing down statues as long as there have been memorials.

“It’s a very human thing to do,” he said. But he also said we must remember the time the monuments were erected and the reason they were placed. And there should not be “a knee-jerk response to tear them down. The rule of law should prevail.”

“What a monument looks like matters more than who or what it honors,” offered Kirk Savage, a professor of art history, noted historian of public monuments and discussion panelist.

He cited the controversial Stephen Foster statue as a case in point, in which Foster is depicted as a refined gentleman and a shabbily-dressed black figure is seated at his feet strumming the banjo.

(While the statue is neither Pitt-owned nor situated on Pitt property, a committee of University faculty, staff and students was convened more than a year ago at the request of Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Pamela Connelly. The committee, which consisted of members with varying views and expertise, studied the statue in response to concerns raised by students and shared its research with the City of Pittsburgh. After hearing public comments, the Pittsburgh Arts Commission voted Oct. 25 to recommend the City remove the statue from its location on Forbes Avenue.)

During the panel discussion, the issue of how University buildings are named — or are later evaluated if concerns arise — was raised.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion has created guidelines for evaluating concerns related to traditions, honorifics, and other emblems. When a concern raises an issue that is inconsistent with the University’s mission and values, a group including faculty, subject matter experts, administrators, students and staff will be appointed to review the concern. That review will include research, debate, community engagement, analysis and draft recommendations to the chancellor and in some cases, the Board of Trustees.

According to Savage, the Confederate monuments in this country are being viewed as they somehow represent Southern culture and that taking them down is attacking that culture.

“That’s not the right way to look at it,” said Savage. “The problem with Confederate monuments is what they stand for.”

Masich, who recently returned from Denver, Colorado, told the group that there is a statue of a cavalrymen with rifle in hand at the steps of the state capital in Denver. Its plaque states that Colorado’s 1st and 3rd Cavalry had staged a surprise attack on Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the banks of San Creek, killing 150 men, women and children.

Every year, he explained, a “Healing Run” takes place, starting at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site and finishing at the statue in Denver.

“They climb that monument and whack that soldier on the head! They want that monument to remain for that purpose,” said Masich.

Panel moderator Deane Root, Department of Music chair and director of Pitt’s Center for American Music, suggested members of a community determine “who the heroes and anti-heroes are.”

Masich agreed, recalling a comment author and historian David McCullough recently made where he suggested we build monuments to teachers — teachers who influenced people, like Fred Rogers and Helen Keller.

“If we asked the public, ‘Who would you like to see memorialized in a statue?’, he said. “that would be a good discussion.”


Sharon Blake,, 412-624-4364


Filed under: Feature,Volume 50 Issue 9

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