A recent audit of nearly 50,000 American monuments has revealed some interesting things about the nation’s taste in public memorials.
For one, the United States has erected more monuments to mermaids than congresswomen. The nonprofit Monument Lab reported a ratio of 22:2 in favor of the mythic creature, while real-life women make up just six percent of the top 50 most commonly statued historical figures. (Those women are Joan of Arc, Sacagawea, and Harriet Tubman.)
Abraham Lincoln tops the list of honorees with 193 public memorials, according to the nonprofit’s “National Monument Audit.” George Washington (171) and Christopher Columbus (149) are next, followed by Martin Luther King Jr. with 86 memorials. King is among the 10 percent of Black or Indigenous figures represented in the top 50 honorees.
Overwhelmingly, the study concluded, the American monument landscape is dominated by white men, many of whom are associated with war and conquest. Furthermore, of the top 50 individuals most frequently cast in bronze, almost 75 percent were landowners, 50 percent enslaved other people, and 40 percent were born into wealth.
These findings come at a time when the conversation around America’s monuments is particularly controversial. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder last May, numerous memorials commemorating Confederate soldiers and other racist figures have been torn down, and the legitimacy of countless others has been questioned.
As the debate around which historical figures deserve to be publicly memorialized, the Monument Lab’s report did leave room for optimism. Among its key takeaways is the fact that public memorials in the United States have always been subject to change, and that change is necessary to ensure the nation’s monuments accurately represent its history.
Fortunately, these changes are already underway. In addition to local campaigns targeting problematic memorials across the country, the Andrew J. Mellon Foundation, which funded the National Audit, has also funded Monument Lab’s next big undertaking: a project called Re:Generation that will give 10 teams $100,000 each to transform the nation’s current commemorative landscape.
According to the nonprofit’s website, “projects that have the potential to shift local and regional narratives, particularly in contexts where interventions into the commemorative landscape could foster wider transformations” are especially encouraged.