Episode 02: Kirk Savage

  Emancipation Memorial , Washington D.C., (Wikicommons/Yeowatzup).

Emancipation Memorial, Washington D.C., (Wikicommons/Yeowatzup).

Art historian Kirk Savage is one of the nation’s foremost experts on monuments and memorials. Savage is a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of several books including Monument Wars and Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth Century America, which was recently reprinted in an updated edition from Princeton University Press. His landmark book reveals how African American soldiers were largely left off public monuments after the Civil War, in favor of sites dedicated to white leaders, as well as white union and confederate soldiers. Savage traces how so many confederate monuments were installed on public lands, who initially paid for them, and how they reinforced practices of white supremacy. In recent projects, he is collaborating with artists on permanent and temporary monument projects to shift the ways we experience history in public spaces.


Paul Farber, Host: Kirk Savage. Welcome to the program.

Kirk Savage: Thank you.

Farber: You are a historian of monuments. How did you react when you first heard that confederate monuments were coming down in several US cities?

Savage: Well initially, I had a lot of mixed feelings. Because as an art historian, we need these monuments to survive in order to study them. And by nature we tend to be preservationists. I've looked at a lot of monuments over the years that I found to be really problematic and objectionable, and that had been controversial. I never really expected any of them to come down. The most I ever expected is that we might change our views about them. So it was with mixed feelings at first. And I wondered about whether, how communities might engage in the process of coming to a decision about what to do with monuments? So I wondered a lot about the processes that were being used to come to these decisions which often seemed not terribly inclusive. But over the last year I think it's fair to say that my opinions have shifted and that I have increasingly seen the need to remove many of the confederate monuments, for a variety of reasons that we can talk about.

Farber: As we think about these take downs. There's a whole different variety of ways that municipal authorities or activists use that vary by location. What are the different tactics that have been used to remove a given problematic monument from a public square?

Savage: Well I guess they would range from communities or portions of the community taking the matter into their own hands outside a legal framework and vandalizing or destroying a monument. You know we've seen that happen in [Chapel Hill,] North Carolina. And then there are long community discussions, such as what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia that could ultimately lead to removal of the monument, in which there's a lot of community input. Even a special commission established, and so on, to study the issue and to engage with communities and get really genuine community participation. You know and then you have on the other hand, the example of cities like Baltimore, New Orleans where these decisions are made by the Mayor, by the administrations in charge of that property. So, each one of these has its own issues. The last thing I want to do is utter some kind of blanket condemnation against any of them. My heart obviously goes towards the more consultative kind of process. But I also have increasingly understood the need to take action, which has resulted in these other ways of removing monuments.

Farber: Your 1997 landmark book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves was recently reprinted in a new edition by Princeton University Press. In the book you deeply research how civil war memorials and monuments, including those to the confederacy came to be, and how they helped define the ways we remember the Civil War – especially without a full acknowledgement of the role of African American soldiers as emancipators. What inspired you to pursue that work of research?

Savage: Well it started out as my dissertation. I was really interested in working on subject matter that wasn't high art, that had what I thought of as much broader societal impact. I was a budding historian of art of the United States. And it struck me that here were all of these monuments erected after the Civil War. In many cases these were the first works of public sculpture that had ever been erected in these small towns and communities where they've been erected. I was really fascinated with that. Why that happened. And the spread of this kind of form of public art across thousands of communities. And so I went into the project really with that idea. Like why did this matter to people in such a way that they would go to these lengths to erect so many monuments at a time when there really wasn't much of a monumental tradition in the United States? What did this have to do with the war? How is this a response to the war? How are these communities grappling with the war through this form of public art? So that was my initial question, and I have to say, that I really was not thinking about race and slavery much at all. And it was partly because I had a really fine historian on my committee who pushed me in that direction.

Savage: As soon as I started to really look at that issue, it became very clear within a matter of weeks, I guess, months. That this was the issue. This was the issue to focus on. And so I began with the issue of slavery and how that was dealt with initially in that very early period of abolition after 1865. How this came up in the monuments. All the monuments that were proposed to Abraham Lincoln. And then by extension how the issue came up in the soldier monuments that came later. So it was really kind of an organic process. I did not come in with a preconceived notion about these monuments at all. But the more I did the research, the more it, kind of like an investigation, it pointed to these issues. Issues of slavery, emancipation, and what the new racial order would be in Reconstruction and afterword.

Farber: In your book, one of the quite compelling things that you highlight is this idea in sculpture of an elevated President Abraham Lincoln in the act of emancipation. And there may be African American figures represented in tandem, but they're often kneeling. How did the memory of Abraham Lincoln emerge as one of the ways that we think about the Civil War in opposition to say, the role of African American abolitionists or soldiers?

Savage: Well, I think there are a lot of reasons why that happened. So we'd have to remember who is putting up the monuments. Who had the authority to speak in public space at that period of time? And it was not African Americans. So, the projects that came out of that early period right after Lincoln's assassination and the abolition of slavery, were projects that were proposed, funded and so on, almost entirely by white organizations of different kinds. For them, the story that they wanted to tell was the heroic story of Abraham Lincoln ending slavery. And it was a white story, a congratulatory story. A self-congratulatory story about a white nation freeing itself from slavery. The crucial role that African Americans in that process, partly as resisters to slavery, as people who fled slavery, who eroded the institution of slavery from within. And then as soldiers in the union army, almost 200,000 who attacked the system of slavery from without. That crucial role was not part of this dominant story that these white organizations and sponsors and fundraisers wanted to tell.

Farber: This is in some ways kind of a continuation of that question. It was astonishing to read in your book that leading up to the Civil War, there were no known public statues to African Americans. And that in time, when African American figures were depicted in public sculpture, it was often in deference to white soldiers or white leaders. Why were white figures and whiteness put on a higher pedestal by these early monument builders at that time after the Civil War?

Savage: The reasons why the African Americans started to appear in sculpture only as subordinate or subservient figures to white heroes, again, it's a complex of reasons. But it all returns to the same basic issue of white supremacy. That the United States was a white supremacist nation, was a white nation. It's the way it thought of itself. North and South. And after the abolition of slavery in 1865, this created an enormous problem because the same basic framework existed. Same idea, this was a white nation and African Americans were subservient because they had a long history of being enslaved. And that's the way they were seen. So how to change that, this was not something that was going to change overnight, even in the best of circumstances. But what we do see, is actually the white narrative rearing its head again and again. Reaffirming itself, reaffirming this white view of the nation. So turning the black story into a story about white heroism. And I know that's kind of general. It's kind of general to say that. But this was a time in which heroes were defined as the movers, and shakers, and leaders of the white nation. So the idea that African Americans themselves played a significant part in their own liberation at this period of time is something that really wouldn't be grappled with seriously until the mid to late 20th century. To think it's really over a century later that that begins to happen, really in earnest.

Farber: Who were the sponsors of the early confederate monuments? And who paid for them and what were they trying to accomplish?

Savage The earliest monuments were mainly erected in cemeteries. We're talking now about the late 1860s into the 1870s, and even into the early 1880s. They were pretty simple markers of loss, in a way, trying to honor and name men who had died, and whose bodies for the most part hadn't been recovered. And they were sponsored and paid for largely by women's groups. Local women's memorial associations. LMA's, they call themselves. Local memorial associations. That took responsibility for trying to, both repatriate confederate remains, and bring them back to their home sites or at least to large cemeteries in the south like existed in Richmond and Charleston. And to build markers or monuments to recognize them in some way. And it wasn't really until after reconstruction had ended and white governments had really reasserted control in the south, that these organizations then kind of morphed into what we now know as the UDC: The United Daughters of the Confederacy. And other organizations that began to erect monuments for much more ideological purposes, really as part of a larger propaganda campaign for the return of white supremacy in the south.

Farber: That was their goal? That is what they tried to accomplish and kind of moving from memorials in cemeteries to monuments in public squares?

Savage: Yeah, absolutely. All you have to do is go back and read through the minutes of the meetings of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. They make their intentions quite clear. Building monuments was part of a multi-pronged program to retell the story of the Civil War from a white, southern slave holder point of view. It involved not just monuments, but it involved a PR campaign, it involved history textbooks. It involved lots of things. All coordinated to basically message this one story, over, and over, over again. And to erase any other interpretations that were out there as false.

Farber: Thinking of your research process, where does a historian of monuments go to tell the fuller story? I mean clearly statues matter, but there are other places you go to find those stories and understand the creation of these sites of commemoration.

Savage: Yeah, absolutely. So that was one of the kind of wonderful challenges of the research. I love looking at art and I love looking at monuments. And you're right that you can tell a lot from that kind of field work. Simply examining the objects themselves. But also I'm an archival historian as well and I love burying myself in the archives. So finding the archives of the committees that worked on these monuments, and trying to track those down as well as reading archives of the major people who were involved in those monument campaigns, then shed enormous light on what these projects were about. What their intentions were, the obstacles that they faced, how they resolved them or didn't resolve them, who their intended audience was. All those kinds of questions were really eliminated by looking in the archives.

Savage: And it's a real scattered record. Sometimes monument committees are very proud of themselves, and they publish their proceedings and then there are more records and archives. Other times they're just lost entirely. But there was certainly enough, particularly around the monuments, the confederate monuments in Richmond was a very rich vein of archives there. Especially in what used to be known as the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.

Farber: Can you speak more about that history of Monument Avenue? In part because it's clearly a site of ongoing contest. It's a site where there are multiple grand monuments to confederate generals. But in the 1990s, a monument to African American tennis player Arthur Ashe was installed. It's a fascinating site. How does Monument Avenue give us a window into the kind of strange and complicated history of monuments in the United States?

Savage: Monument Avenue ... There are so many stories. And so many that are typical of monuments, but some that are unique to itself. I did a lot of research on the origins of the Avenue. Which the Avenue was first dreamed up, and then designed around the Robert E. Lee monument in 1890, which was the original monument there. And the whole question of where that monument should be sited is utterly fascinating and raises all sorts of questions that Americans in 19th century asked about what the role of a public monument is and where should it be located. Because there were several different competing groups trying to get that monument to Lee erected. There was a veterans group, there was a woman's group, and then there was a group around the governor of Virginia. Eventually the veterans gave up, and the women and the governor took over the reigns of that project. The women wanted that monument to be erected in a park, a public park. And they had the idea, which many people did at the time to have monuments where contemplative objects needed to be in quiet locations where sort of middle class people congregated and behaved themselves. They didn't want them in streets. And the governor of Virginia, Fitzhugh Lee was the one who had the idea, of putting it out in the middle of this empty field and creating a boulevard around it, as part of a real estate speculation. This may sound crazy, but actually it's not at all in the history of monuments in the 19th century. There are several examples of monuments anchoring real estate speculations. They were prestige items that would draw people to them. And this was a model established from royal monuments in France and England, where squares were built speculatively around monuments to the king in the 18th century. So that's where it ended up going in. They kind of cut a deal. The women and the governor cut a deal, and the women got the design they wanted and the governor got the location he wanted. And this grand boulevard was created out there in the middle of nowhere, on the outskirts of town, outside what was then the settled area of Richmond. So a new suburb was created based on the spine of this boulevard and it quickly became very fashionable. And so more monuments were proposed to confederate heroes. And became a kind of chain of monuments to confederate heroes. Five of them out there by the early 20th century. And a sort of new center of Richmond in a way, and certainly the most important monumental center in the entire US south.

Farber: You tell the story of the Freedman's Memorial as beginning as a project about reconstruction and emancipation from African Americans. And trace how it changed, and how it morphed. What is the story of the Freedman's Memorial and how did the project change and shift during that period of Reconstruction?

Savage: So that was such an interesting project because it began shortly after the assassination of Lincoln with spontaneous contributions made by African Americans, and there's even one woman who's named as the first contributor, who was a former slave. And then it was really taken up by soldiers. And most of the money that was raised for that project came from African American soldiers who had fought for the union. And so this was the one example ... I remember earlier in this show I said that African Americans didn't have the power to erect monuments in public space at this time and that's true. This was the one case of a monument being financed, really exclusively by African Americans. The issue was that they never had any say in the process. They gave the money, but they didn't have any say in the design, or organization of the process. Even from the very beginning. So, the project did begin as one that was going to recognize particularly the contributions of African American soldiers. It was a large design made by a female sculptor named Harriet Hosmer, who was well known at the time. It had a cycle of the history of African Americans in the United States, going from slavery to soldier. And this would have been an incredibly powerful statement of the kind of change of African Americans over time into independent agents able to fight for their own cause. And that design was ultimately never executed because it was very large and expensive. And instead, one of the members of the white organization that had collected the money from the black soldiers, that white organization which was a philanthropic organization, that dealt with freed men and refugees. Just one of the men on that organization just kind of single handedly chose a design on his own. And it was one of these old designs of Lincoln with a kneeling slave that have come out in 1865, 1866.By the time it was erected, it was the end of Reconstruction and in a weird way, then this monument was kind of affirming the position of African Americans at the end of Reconstruction. Which was that they had lost their, In most places in the south they had lost what political power they had gained and were on their way to disenfranchisement and Jim Crow.

Farber: Currently there are many sites of memory related to carrying forward the narratives of enslaved people. But there is no national memorial or monument reckoning with the history of slavery. Why do you think there is no national monument or memorial to enslaved peoples on the Washington Mall or elsewhere in the capital?

Savage: In a way, I think the answer to that is simple in a sense. There's a simple and there's a complicated answer. The simple answer is that, as a nation, the United States has never reckoned properly with its own history of slavery. There was never any truth in reconciliation commission for this. There's never been a serious effort to make reparations for slavery, even though this was one of the biggest crimes in human history. And there certainly hasn't been a reckoning with the war itself and its complex history of the slavery. In a way this doesn't surprise me because, especially in the monumental arena, where is there really a reckoning with the fundamental issues of any war or any major historical crime that the United States has been involved in. We don't have monuments that reckon with Indian dispossession and genocide. We don't have monuments reckoning with slavery. So that's kind of the simple answer. And again it gets back to the pervasiveness of white supremacy in the landscape. But also the unwillingness of the nation to really challenge its own heroic self-congratulatory narrative. There's more complex answers when we look at this project by project. And we look the possibilities that were around, say the 1860s. There were real possibilities for maybe coming to terms with slavery in a more meaningful way, in public space. And they didn't happen. But there were people trying. And we have that same ability now to take the issue up and try once again. But it's not going to be easy even now to do that.

Farber:  In Monument Wars, you follow the transformation of the national mall from its status as a swampy marshland, to a curated national shrine. How did the national mall change over time? Especially in becoming the kind of official sanctioned site of public memory for the nation?

Savage: I was really interested in that transformation, and particularly interested in the landscape. You know, every monument is part of a landscape. So the question of whether they should be in parks, or streets, or separate zones, or integrated into life. All these are really interesting questions. And in Washington in the 19th century, public monuments were really integrated into the fabric of the city. They were in those circles that drive everyone crazy in Washington. They were in those circles and other street locations. And for the most part the significant monuments weren't off in parks. Or weren't located on what would become the mall. It was a totally different concept there in the 19th century. In the 19th century, what happened was that that space that had been swampy, in the late 18th, early 19th century was drained. It was reorganized as a really large public park. Not in the formal sense that Central Park in New York was, but as a serious chain of parks that belonged to different federal jurisdictions. But that created one long sort of breathing space for the city. There was a lot of diversity in that, in that landscape. There was different designs, and different kind of plants, and trees. And a few monuments, but mostly insignificant.Ones that were not nationally significant. And then in the early 20th century, a group of planners, and architects, and artists, part of the kind of republican elite of governing elite of that era, got together and proposed a massive formal plan for the central city. They would turn that series of picturesque parks into a formal axis with fountains, and grass, and water in rectangular pools. And anchor that axis by monuments, on the compass points of it. So that was the kind of this very formal landscape dream that was put out there in 1901. And gradually over time, through a lot of very tricky behind the scenes maneuvers, was largely executed. And it involved for example, the destruction of thousands of trees, beloved trees. And it involved relocating the monuments that had been in that space, that were seen as insignificant. Relocating them elsewhere. And putting in new ones that told this new national story about the reunification of the country after the Civil War. And again, it was another white story. A story of the white nation dividing, then reunifying triumphantly, as an imperial power in the early 20th century.

Farber: In listening to your response I can't help but think of the strange resonance of the phrase, "drain the swamp."

Savage: [Laughs.] Yeah, that's right. And you know it's really interesting because the kind of republican elite of that period, that governed in Washington, and they definitely governed with these ideas of "good" government. It was the beginning of the civil service as we know it. And involved a lot of ideas about reform of the way cities were governed by kind of political boss rule. And so it wasn't simply a formal project even though it was that largely, but it was also an idea about putting government into the hands of experts – impartial experts, who would know better than the old political bosses, how to run a city. Or how to run a nation for that matter. So there definitely was a drain the swamp element to that. At the same time that there was a real arrogance about expertise and one in which they had no interest in listening to the community at all, white or black.

Farber: Of all the monumental structures on the mall that attempt to convey permanence and power, the site for me that in many ways continues to stand out and signify is Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And thinking over time and this idea that the national mall transforms, how has your take on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial changed from its status as a proposal to a new monument to now something that's been there for more than a generation?

Savage: Well in some ways my views have changed on it. In some ways they have remained the same. I still think this is a brilliant work, certainly the greatest. The most amazing monument erected in the late 20th century. One of the most amazing ever erected. And it certainly changed the conversation about monuments, completely. And at the time that it was erected, I was a young man just not too far out of college. And the right wing attacks on the design I found to be super interesting, and also incredibly irritating. And so I myself came in to do an intervention. The first piece I ever wrote and published on a monument was on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And it was basically to argue against all those people who equated its minimalist design with some kind of nihilistic leftist gesture. [Laughs.] And I did dig into archives. I looked at the transcripts of the long debates of the fine arts commission over it. To understand that controversy and to understand the ideological stakes better. You know I came in very much as a booster of that memorial, and I still am in many ways. Over time I have become, I guess more and more concerned about the way in which that monument has been appropriated by the war machine, essentially. And the way its been appropriated and turned into yet another American war memorial celebrating American Service to the world basically. And that's partly because of what was erected afterwards. The series of monuments to the Korean War, World War II. That whole end of the mall's been now taken over by war memorials. Whenever that happens that changes the context for any given work that's in it. And the Vietnam Veterans Memorial really started that process. All these other monuments were erected in response to it. And so that's one issue that has troubled me over the years. And another issue is really the lack of the perspective of the Vietnamese in this. So it's yet another monument that is really exclusively about Americans, where we focus on our own losses. And by focusing on one thing, in the memorial landscape you're always erasing something else. Because you put up a large honorific or monument, to some group, then others are excluded. And that's in fact exactly why the Korean War Memorial, and the World War II Memorial were erected. Because they felt excluded by the presence of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Well think about that in relationship to the rest of the world. You might say, "well why would we erect a monument to our enemies?" Well first of all there were millions of Vietnamese that were actually on our side, or a ostensibly on our side in that war. And many of their descendants, or many of them and their families now live in the United States, millions of them. So these are American citizens now, who don't have any representation, at all in public space. Let alone something as phenomenal as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I just question the whole enterprise of the war memorial itself, and wondering why we can't start erecting monuments that actually truly reckon with the wars that we're involved in. And that would involve reckoning with all sides in the war. And reckoning with our participation in a global conflict. So, these are all big issues, that's not what Maya Lin was asked to do. That was not the competition program. She did the competition program, and she did it amazingly, perfectly. So these are not criticisms of her or the monument really in particular. They're really more objections to the larger memorial landscape. And particularly the war memorial landscape.

Farber: At the end of your Monument Wars book, you called for a moratorium of at least ten years on new monuments on the mall. And instead to have temporary installations and interventions, and reinterpretations. How has that call played out in public spaces, in DC and elsewhere?

Savage: So, remarkably that idea actually did gain a little bit of traction. I have to say when I wrote that, I was just a guy sitting in my study at my desk dreaming up a possible idea. [Laughs.] I never consulted with anyone about it. Or thought about it as a really practical option. But I found out, a few months later I got a call from the National Capital Planning Commission. And they asked me to come down and talk to their staff about it. Because they were really interested in this idea. And the reason they were so interested in this idea is that they are flooded with monument proposals. Constantly. And they are the gatekeepers and they have to figure out some way to beat them back, or push them out into more remote neighborhoods. Everybody wants to be on the mall. So they were really, really interested in this idea as a way of perhaps dealing with this kind of crisis of over production of monuments. And I thought, what if we did have things that were temporary for a while? Maybe we'll see how much traction those temporary proposals or projects have, and then see what to do with them. So they came and invited me, and I talk to them, and I talked to the National Park Service people who were at that meeting, and a bunch of other people. It was really fascinating to hear about their own kind of institutional struggles with the problem of a monument. So National Capital Planning Commission actually took this idea quite seriously, we had a symposium about it. They eventually made a call for a temporary monument that was pulled at the last minute. I'm not sure why. In the end there hasn't been much done with it, though it was, in Washington at least, even though it was much discussed. Now looking at it more broadly, nationally there's been so much more conversation now about temporary monuments. And I'm not going to take the credit for that, that my book was the lone stimulus for all this conversation. I think there were a lot of people like Krzysztof Wodiczko, artists like him and others were already working in this vein. That's why I got the idea in the first place. But that conversation just really became much more widespread, and much more intense in the years that followed. Of course Monument Lab is in many ways a fruition of that conversation. So you've actually done that. And I think a lot of other places are now looking to do it too. Now that monuments are coming down. And some places the question is, well we got to rush and erect some new permanent public monument in its place. Other places may be thinking about well what if we program this space with temporary works. How about that? So this is a real, this has now become a viable alternative to erecting permanent public monuments. We'll see how long it lasts.

Farber: You teach at Pitt, and were part of a group of scholars who wrote a letter supporting the take down of a problematic monument to Stephen Foster. The white writer of minstrel music that included a racist caricature in the monument structure. And that monument has since been removed. What is the status of that removed statue? And what is happening in Pittsburgh around this and other monumental sites?

Savage: The Stephen Foster monument was removed in the spring [of 2018]. And it's as far as I know still out at a storage site in a park in Pittsburgh wrapped up. And there are two issues here, one is what to do with the monument itself, the monument that's been removed. And the second issue is what to do with the site where the monument was located. Which was in the kind of campus area of the University of Pittsburgh, though not on University of Pittsburgh property. It was actually on property belonging to the City of Pittsburgh. And so that second question of what to do about the site, has been decided and a new monument is going to be erected there. A commission was created by the mayor to choose some possible replacements. And they narrowed it down to eight African American women who have connections to Pittsburgh. And so there's a kind of public voting process going on online about which one of these eight we should choose to erect a permanent public monument to, where a Stephen Foster monument had been installed. As for the Steven Foster statue itself, many of us hoped that it would go to a museum. And on that front, things haven't worked out very well. Most museums don't want to take it. And even the local cemetery is apparently balking at that idea though. Where Stephen Foster's actually buried. So we'll see what happens there. There may not be a solution to that problem itself. But this is part of a larger, I think conversation that's going to ensue in Pittsburgh about how the memorial landscape should be shaped from here on out. And what kind of representation should be in it. For a long time this ragged, black, barefoot, banjo player was the only figure of an African American in public space in the City of Pittsburgh. So I mean that was absolutely terrible. And now there's a couple of sports stars who are represented near the baseball stadium. But there really has not been a serious effort to redress this history in public space, and we need to do that. How that's going to happen, I don't know. This is where the rubber hits the road. What kind of public process is going to be put into place to try to address this issue meaningfully. So far I really haven't heard the beginnings of that.

Farber: In Pittsburgh or elsewhere, there seems to be the need to strike a balance between understanding the actions and history of the past, with the wounds in the present of people who have been misrepresented by the monuments in our country. How do we balance between telling complex stories and dealing with those very real wounds?

Savage: That's a great question. Let me begin with an answer that may seem a little off point at first. I think that any group of people, any community, has a responsibility to reckon honestly, truthfully with its own history. I think that monuments don't for the most part do that, but they could. Let's imagine a situation where all of the people wounded by these misrepresentations of the past were simply not there. They weren't in our community. But we had erected a monument to them. Maybe a monument about an Indian massacre let's say, in a community that no longer has any Native Americans in it to be wounded by that particular work. We still have a responsibility to challenge these falsely representative monuments and tell our own history in an unflinching truthful way. And that might require taking down a monument like that. It might require a vast, very powerful intervention against the monument. So I believe that this is a responsibility that we have, whether or not, there are still descendant communities that are wounded by the representation. Of course, in most places there are these descendant communities. Not only are they wounded by these representations, they are still feeling the effects in their daily lives, of the false histories that have been perpetrated in the names of people oppressing them. So this is not a theoretical issue, it's not an identity issue purely. It's really an issue about people's survival and well-being in daily life. The effects of slavery are still with us in many, many profound ways. And have shaped the world very profoundly, shaped the prospects of white people and black people, very differently. And that continues to happen. So this is a live issue. And so I would say, that we have to pay a lot of attention to the communities that are wounded by these representations. And they have to have a very powerful voice in this process. Just as we've now, in say after 9/11, it was a kind of national consensus that the victims and their families had a powerful say in the process of what should be erected. Of what kinds of memorialization should happen. So the same model would hold for monuments that affect the communities that have descended from slaves. The communities that have descended from the native peoples who were killed, dispossessed, in this country. And we have a very powerful responsibility to give them a major stake in this process and a major voice in this process. Again, we're just at the beginning stages of this. And haven't seen that happening in a very powerful way at this point in time. Just to give you an example, what if we threw open like capital statuary. The statuary in the US capital. The two statues that represent every state of the union. What if we through that whole collection open to a completely new conversation. A completely new discussion. In which we really empowered the descendant communities of those people, harmed by the mostly men who've been chosen to represent those states. What would that process look like? And how do we do it? How do we execute it? Of course it's inconceivable now in today's political climate. But that's what I'm talking about. Trying to make the inconceivable conceivable.

Farber: In this moment of reckoning and reinvention, you're a part of a team, including artist Krzysztof Wodiczko and landscape architect Walter Hood, that were named finalists in a public call for a site of memory in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King in Boston. What is it like to be both a monument historian, and also monument builder?

Savage:  Well, I should say right of the bat that it's a strange position to be in. And one that I never thought I would ever be in. That I would ever be advising a group and have a say in the design process for a monument like this. In this case the process was really pretty wonderful, I have to say. I mean I'm not a designer, and so I was not involved in that part of the project. The people on this team are intellectuals, who read a lot and think a lot about monuments. And the issues that are involved in them. And so the process begins with simply conversations about what would an intervention look like that would be really meaningful, that actually takes into account some of the new thinking about public monuments and the memorial landscape.

Savage: That part of it is comfortable. Part of it is sitting in conversations that are generative for the designers. Then actually looking at the designs though. We have several meetings by Skype where we were actually discussing the designs, as those designs were evolving. And that's, I have to say, a lot more difficult. Because I'm not an advocate in my work for one design over another. I just analyze things. But you know, you put your same analytical hat on and you analyze these designs as if they were real monuments out there. And you think, well, what would I think about this? And what kinds of contributions could I offer? What kinds of ideas? Things for them to think about in their revision. For the most part, it was a pretty seamless process for me. And it was really a privilege to be actually engaged in the process, and to see how the design evolved over time because it changed a lot from beginning to end. The final design that they submitted was significantly different from the ones they began with. And it was all because of input that they got from various people, including me. So it's sort of humbling, but also just a fascinating process to be involved in.

Farber: Kirk Savage, thank you for sharing your insights and your research.

Savage: Well thanks for having me. It’s been really fun to talk about this.