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Who do Americans honor most? The National Monument Audit wants to find out

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

We have been having a national discussion about monuments in this country, who and what gets commemorated and why. A new report from the Monument Lab called the National Monument Audit, in partnership with the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, studied 50,000 monuments across this country. Spoiler alert - we really like mermaids, apparently. Paul Farber is co-director of the audit and joins me now. Hello.

PAUL FARBER: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is good to have you. Why did you set out to do this study?

FARBER: Monuments are central to our consciousness. They're in the heart of our cities and towns. And yet they remain elusive. It's hard to see them as a collection because we encounter them as one-off symbols. And in this moment of reckoning and reimagining, we wanted to really understand, what are the patterns and themes that structure our public symbols?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, 200 public monuments celebrate Abraham Lincoln in the U.S. George Washington and Christopher Columbus come in second and third. I guess that's not so surprising.

FARBER: Well, you'll also see that 44 of the top 50 places are for people who we would consider white men. Three of the top spots are women, including the No. 1-ranked Joan of Arc. And then five Black or indigenous figures, and that is inclusive of Harriet Tubman and Sacagawea, Dr. King, Frederick Douglass and Tecumseh. There are no U.S.-born Latinx, Asian Pacific Islander or self-identified LGBTQ+ people in the top 50. This is really showing us how we have commemorated over time and who ends up being elevated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I want to just bring in the mermaids because 11 times more mermaid statues than congresswomen.

FARBER: It's in some ways astonishing. And for others who we've spoken with, this is common fact. For our study, it was far easier to find women represented as allegorical symbols than as historic figures. And, of course, you know, to be clear, this study is not a count of every single thing that could be considered a monument in this country. Undoubtedly, we missed statues of congresswomen, and we also missed statues of mermaids.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

FARBER: And from our research, we know that we missed more mermaids because the monument landscape has largely not elevated the stories of of historic women in the same scope and the same intensity as historic men.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of influence do you hope your research will have? What do you think our takeaway should be?

FARBER: One thing we want to take away is to read and engage this study and really try to look at the monuments that we have inherited over generations. And likewise, we want people to think about the findings and dwell on them - that monuments have always changed, that the monument landscape is overwhelmingly white and male, that the most common features of American monuments reflect war and conquest and that the story of the United States as told by our current monuments misrepresents our history. Where inequalities exist, monuments perpetuate them. And if we want to live to our full creed and we want to kind of imagine this notion of moving forward, we need a new relationship with our past that aims to really acknowledge a fuller history of our country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Paul Farber is the co-director of the National Monument Audit. Thank you very much.

FARBER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AROVANE'S "TIDES ALBUM EPILOGUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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