Beyond Stone and Bronze: The Next Chapter of Monuments in America

soloist dancing in the center of a space while others against the wall look on The Wideman Davis Dance Company performs Migratuse Ataraxia in Alabama in 2020. Photo: Clark Scott.

Building on a field-wide audit in 2021, four new Monuments Project grants expand our expectations of what monuments can be.

When you step outside, walk down the street, head to the nearest park or gathering place, and look around, what do you find? Trees and grass—more than likely. Maybe a playground and trashcans, too. But keep looking, and what else do you notice? What else have people built?  

If there’s a statue or sculpture, who does it represent? If there’s a sign or plaque, what does it say?  

And what do they say about the people who left them there? 

Until recently, our country didn’t have a reliable or comprehensive way to answer questions about an important part of the public sphere: namely, what we commemorate, memorialize, and honor together.  

But we did see standing the statues of Confederate generals. We did run into more tributes to war than to peace. And we did strain to find examples of the most influential women of our history remembered in a public way. 

When we looked around and started asking these questions, the bigger picture became clear: our monuments were telling a story that wasn’t fully squaring with who we know America to be. 

In 2020, the Mellon Foundation launched the Monuments Project Initiative with a quarter-billion-dollar commitment to build on our efforts to preserve the stories of those who have often been denied historical recognition. Among the first grants was $4 million in support of Monument Lab, a nonprofit public art and history studio in Philadelphia, whose first project under this initiative was the design and implementation of an audit of the existing commemorative landscape in the United States. 

The results of the audit—drawing from records of approximately 50,000 conventional monuments—were sobering, though not surprising. 

The National Monument Audit presented a real opportunity for us—not just to face the commemorative landscape as it is now, but to start writing new chapters that tell a more complete, accurate, and complex story of who we are as Americans. 

The newest of our Monuments Project grants face our history unflinchingly—using everything from dance and participatory visual art to physical relocation—as a way to surface joys and sorrows that were missing or erased from the historical record. 

Together, these four projects ask—and start to answer—deep questions about what is a monument, and what new approaches to commemoration are possible in the years to come.

The Exploration of Antebellum and Black Sites through Wideman Davis Dance

two side-by-side photos; at left: a group of people ascending stairs; at right: a soloist dancing in the middle of a room while others stand against the wall.Left and Right: Migratuse Ataraxia performance in South Carolina in 2019. Photo: Sean Rayford.
Alabama and South Carolina: The Wideman Davis Dance Company is engaging intimate histories of antebellum spaces through dance. 

The South is abundant with antebellum and post-industrial structures and spaces that invoke the inextricable legacies of slavery and white supremacy. But to engage with those spaces meaningfully, and to overcome the erasure that has so pervasively affected Black history, requires information, context, and access that isn’t easily available to the public. The South Carolina-based Wideman Davis Dance Company believes that dance helps tell the layered stories of Black spaces throughout time. Many of these spaces, rich with historical insights, continue to be fluid and active in the communities where they sit, but are rarely memorialized. To address this gap in our historical understanding, Wideman Davis Dance created Migratuse Ataraxia, an interactive dance-based performance that was staged in a building on a former plantation in Harpersville, Alabama. A grant from Mellon will support Wideman Davis Dance to expand upon the Migratuse model with three, six-month residencies in cities across the South that involve local communities and engage live audiences in intimate antebellum histories told through dance. Both ephemeral and participatory, the performances are reimagining what a monument can be.

The Relocation of Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe

two side-by-side images; at left: vintage photo of people gathered; at right: a stone monument photographed from a distance.Left: Erection of stone to “Pioneers of Kansas …” in 1929. Courtesy of Watkins Museum of History. Right: Community organizing around relocating the stone. Photo: David Loewenstein.
Lawrence, Kansas: The Kaw Nation, community organizers, and the City of Lawrence are relocating a sacred stone (Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe) to its rightful location.

Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe (EE(n) ZHOO-jay wah-HO-bay) is a twenty-five-ton glacial erratic stone of long-held and deep spiritual and cultural significance to the Kanza people of the Kaw Nation. Why, then, is the stone sitting in Robinson Park in Lawrence, Kansas, holding a plaque dedicated “to the pioneers” of Kansas? In 1929, as a part of the city’s 75th anniversary, Iⁿ ‘zhúje ‘waxóbe was desecrated—moved from its natural location at the confluence of the Shunganunga Creek and the Kansas River to what is now a park named after the state’s first governor, Charles Robinson, and installed there as a monument to the settlers. In 2019, after years of Kaw citizens’ requesting its return, the City of Lawrence issued a formal apology; and now, a broad coalition of groups, including the Kaw tribal leadership, are working with the University of Kansas to ensure safe relocation of the stone to land held by the Kaw Nation. A grant from Mellon will support the stone’s relocation, build infrastructure at the natural site as directed by the Kanza, and develop interpretive programming there, as well as in Lawrence at what will be the stone’s former site.

Irei (Consoling the Spirits) of the Japanese American WWII Incarceration 

two side-by-side, black-and-white images; at left: peopled queued up in front of a sign with Japanese characters; at right: a minimalist sculpture.Left: Manzanar Ireitō (“Soul Consoling Tower”) built by incarcerees during WWII. Courtesy of the Shinjo Nagatomi Collection, Manzanar National Historic Site. Right: Rendering of Irei Names Monument.
Los Angeles, CA: Together with a coalition of Japanese-American community groups, Professor Duncan Ryuken Williams and the USC Shinso Ito Center for Japanese Religions and Culture are creating the first-ever memorial to every individual of Japanese ancestry incarcerated during World War II in America’s concentration camps. 

The US policy of internment and incarceration during World War II dramatically altered the lives of over 125,000 persons of Japanese ancestry. Now, over 75 years since the camps were closed, there is still no comprehensive list of the names of those affected—nor is there a consolidated monument to recognize each individual who experienced the wartime forced removal, family separation, unjust deportation, and incarceration. A grant from Mellon will help redress this absence by supporting the creation of the first comprehensive list of names that will, in turn, be brought forth in the three facets of the Irei Names Monument: 1) a sacred book of names (the Ireichō “book to console the spirits”) listing every person incarcerated; 2) an Ireihi (“structure for consoling the spirits”) sculptural memorial onto which the names of those incarcerated will be projected, to be displayed at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles as well as multiple former sites of confinement; and 3) a web-based Ireizo (“consoling spirits storehouse”) where the names of and information about the internees and incarcerees will be gathered in a virtual memorial.

The JXN Project Homecoming

two side-by-side photos; at right: a black-and-white photograph of an old house; at left: said house being elevated and moved with heavy equipment to another location.Richmond, Virginia: The JXN Project is reconstructing the first home built by a Black homeowner.
Richmond, Virginia: The JXN Project is reconstructing the first home built by a Black homeowner. 

It is believed that one in four Black Americans can trace their roots to the rivers of Richmond, Virginia. Yet, the city’s historical significance as home to Jackson Ward—the nation’s first historically registered black urban neighborhood—is often superseded in historical accounts by Richmond’s role as the capital of the Confederacy. In its commitment to restorative truth-telling and redemptive storytelling, The JXN Project recently surfaced the remarkable fact that the first home to be purchased by a Black homeowner was, in the course of history, moved away from Jackson Ward to the Sabot Hill Plantation in Goochland County, which belonged to a secretary of war for the Confederacy. Bringing attention back to the homeowner—Abraham Peyton Skipwith, now fondly remembered as the “Founding Father of Jackson Ward”—a grant from Mellon will support the reconstruction of the home in its rightful origin, while also establishing the home as a national historic site and a space for community programming.