US/ICOMOS Executive Director Bill Pencek reflects on the significance and the future of memorials to the Confederacy
“There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”- Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, May 19, 2017
What added value can US/ICOMOS (the US National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites) bring to the national conversation on Confederate memorials that has not already been said, especially by heritage conservation organizations like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the World Monuments Fund? Why have we all been largely silent on the issue for so long?
The abundance of public discourse on this foundational, shared American heritage, as well as the associated protests and loss of life may be without precedent. But how can we explain our general indifference, until now, to the vast number and collective significance of Confederate memorials across the American landscape—more than 1500 symbols of the Confederacy in public spaces in 31 states and the District of Columbia?
Part of the answer as to why these memorials have not “registered” more prominently lies in our official cultural heritage doctrine which tends to place this cultural resource type in a lower tier of significance. The National Register of Historic Places Criteria for Evaluation directs that ordinarily properties primarily commemorative in nature shall not be considered eligible for the National Register. However, such properties will qualify if they are integral parts of districts that do meet the criteria or if design, age, tradition, or symbolic value have invested it with its own exceptional significance.
“Monuments” in ICOMOS parlance means—reading from the Venice Charter of 1964— from the scale of a single architectural work to the urban or rural setting in which the resource and its underlying civilization and development are evident. Under Article 8, items of sculpture, along with painting or decoration, are characterized as parts of a monument, which may be removed to ensure their preservation. And under Article 7, moving of all or part of a monument can be allowed where safeguarding of the monument demands it or where it is justified by national or international interest of paramount importance.
The elevated national conversation and change of heart taking place about these symbols especially since the murder of nine African American worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by a white supremacist, and the loss of life in Charlottesville are not the only compelling reasons US/ICOMOS will focus more attention. Many sound, new questions have been raised. Are these memorials art or propaganda to rewrite the “Lost Cause”? Does their removal force a change in historical outlook? Are these issues best left to state and local actors? Are the issues confronting the mayor and citizens of Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, and the future of the memorials within the Monument Avenue National Historic Landmark District different than the issues which confronted the citizens of New Orleans, Baltimore, Birmingham or Charlottesville?
ICOMOS, for which US/ICOMOS is the US National Committee, is a global non-governmental organization associated with UNESCO. The mission of ICOMOS is to promote the conservation, protection, use and enhancement of monuments, building complexes and sites. It participates in the development of doctrine and the evolution and distribution of ideas, and conducts advocacy. ICOMOS is an Advisory Body of the World Heritage Committee for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO.
UNESCO in turn works to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values. It is through this dialogue that the world can achieve global visions of sustainable development encompassing observance of human rights, mutual respect and the alleviation of poverty, all of which are at the heart of UNESCO’S mission.
History has shown us that human conflict is “made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of the dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races.” Knowing this, US/ICOMOS intends to take steps that will encourage the public to learn from history, and not to commemorate its dark moments in ways that will promote social discord. The Board of US/ICOMOS will craft a strategic set of actions, guided by the wisdom of its members and partners at a scheduled convening of the Board in September, a Leadership Forum in November, and a major conference in March 2018 on the legacy of slavery partnering with UNESCO and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, in Charlottesville.