A reader sent to me yesterday a copy of the proposed 2021 appropriation for the Department of the Interior, which includes the National Park Service, and he called to my attention to an item on pg. 160 of the appropriation:
REMOVAL OF CONFEDERATE COMMEMORATIVE WORKS 7 SEC. 442.
Notwithstanding any other provision of law
or policy to the contrary, within 180 days of enactment
of this Act, the National Park Service shall remove from
display all physical Confederate commemorative works,
such as statues, monuments, sculptures, memorials, and
plaques, as defined by NPS, Management Policies 2006,
Hmmm, I thought. Does that mean what I think it means?
I sent out a few inquiries to some history people in the know and also set to work poking around on my own. First, I looked up the NPS’s “Management Policies 2006” to find out how the Park Service defines commemorative works. Here’s what section 9.6.1 says:
the term “commemorative work” means any statue, monument, sculpture, memorial, plaque, or other structure or landscape feature, including a garden or memorial grove, designed to perpetuate in a permanent manner the memory of a person, group, event, or other significant element of history.
You can find more starting on pg. 150 of the policies document. Everything in section 9 of the document deals with commemorative works and plaques.
One section I found particularly interesting was section 9.6.4, “Preexisting Commemorative Works.” It offers the kind of historical perspective that’s useful right now:
Many commemorative works have existed in the parks long enough to qualify as historic features. A key aspect of their historical interest is that they reflect the knowledge, attitudes, and tastes of the persons who designed and placed them. These works and their inscriptions will not be altered, relocated, obscured, or removed, even when they are deemed inaccurate or incompatible with prevailing present day values. Any exceptions from this policy require specific approval by the Director.
Two phrases in particular jumped out at me there: “they reflect the knowledge, attitudes, and tastes of the persons who designed and placed them” and “These works…will not be altered, relocated, obscured, or removed, even when they are deemed inaccurate or incompatible with prevailing present day values.” This seems like a definite, deliberate attempt to guard history against presentism.
As I read the proposed appropriation, it would, as legislation, supersede the agency’s policy, although I don’t know enough about these sorts of legislative affairs to be sure. “It is pending,” one colleague said in reply to my query. “The Senate has not considered the legislation yet. I see no chance of that provision surviving the Senate….”
The monument fever that swept the nation last month has finally seemed to quiet down, at least for now, although some folks are concerned that the fight has just shifted to other fronts (just ask Washington formerly-known-as-Redskins fans). Of specific concern have been monuments in national parks and battlefields. Battlefields, which serve as outdoor museums, provide perfect context for statues, monuments, and memorials. Those artifacts, in turn, help visitors understand and appreciate those battlefields.
Although monuments on battlefields have been targeted by vandals, the Park Service itself has steadfastly maintained that the monuments will remain up. I’m reminded of a simple statement I saw on Gettysburg National Military Park’s website, on a page devoted to Confederate monuments: “The NPS will continue to provide historical context and interpretation for all of our sites and monuments in order to reflect a fuller view of past events and the values under which they occurred.”
I’ve thought, No way would anyone take down monuments from National Parks. But as the proposed appropriation suggests, someone somewhere is thinking of it. Even if the provision gets removed, it remains a shot across the bow. I have to eat my hat a little bit, and I’m not ashamed to say it.
I can’t even imagine the cost that would be involved in removing Confederate monuments and markers from national battlefields. Whatever the price tag, spending that money when the NPS has amassed an $11.6 billion dollar backlog of deferred maintenance makes me queasy.
The proposed appropriation is pending, open for revision and amendment, so I’ll try and keep my eye on how things pan out as the legislation moves forward. If you’re interested in or concerned about monuments, you might want to keep an eye on it, too.
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