Statues and monuments adorn many of our public places without most of us even noticing them. They sit on the town square, a popular roost for pigeons and maybe a place for a summer picnic.
And then, all of a sudden, they become symbols of passionate outrage and debate, as has recently happened in New Mexico and elsewhere. So it is that Don Juan de Oñate, Diego de Vargas, Kit Carson, and others now seem like a band of brothers too hot for city authorities to handle.
But the recent controversy over statues in New Mexico isn’t really a question of art, or politics or even social justice. It should be seen for what it is – an opportunity for a worthy act of public education.
As a retired teacher and lifelong learner, I believe it’s a mistake to destroy the statues or simply remove them to a warehouse where they can never be seen again. The bronzes and sculptures and obelisks have something to teach us, and preserving them in a different context would allow both sides to salvage something from what has become a bitter and divisive issue.
Here’s my suggestion: Cities like Albuquerque and Santa Fe should consider creating a Museum of Fallen Heroes where such statues could be exhibited along with textual accounts of why they were erected in the first place, by whom, and why they were taken down. If a new museum doesn’t seem cost effective, there are other options. Keep the statues outdoors, in a park or cemetery, and turn them into a Garden of Fallen Idols for strolling locals and tourists to ponder, if they so wish. Again, even a garden would require some background information for why they were put there in the first place.
This is a teachable moment, and that’s what I mean by using the statues as an act of public education. We didn’t burn copies of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” after World War II because destroying the book would have only helped erase the memory of genocide, not the genocide itself. Books, like statues, are a part of our history, and both are worthy of being preserved in a way to both commemorate the honorable events of our past and condemn the awful ones.
This way, the critics of Oñate – or Carson, or Columbus, or the Confederacy or anyone else – get to see the bronze removed from prominent public view to an appropriate place of educational value.
Meanwhile, their opponents can, in addition to perhaps learning something, take some consolation that the monument is still visible if they want to see it.
Why not learn something from the statues rather than scrap them or exile them to some dark corner in a city garage?