Exploring the ways we document history through statues

Writer: 
June 12, 2018

Nearly a year later, the niche in the chapel’s entrance remains vacant. But no one has forgotten about it.

The Commission on Memory and History, formed after the activity of last August, has aimed to create an “open and deliberative process” around discussions on how to fill the space that previously held the figure of Robert E. Lee. In late March, the Office of the Provost held a two-day public symposium—“American Universities, Monuments, and the Legacies of Slavery”—that packed the Holsti-Anderson Family Assembly Room of Rubenstein Library, gathering scholars from across the country to consider how to best reckon with these issues of the past that can’t be outrun.

And as a result of the chapel episode, investigations that were already under way are now imbued with a sense of timeliness. “Usually I work on ancient statues,” says Elizabeth Baltes Ph.D. ’16, the director of Statues Speak, “so it’s strange to me to be working on something that’s such a hot topic.”

Her project arose in 2015, mimicking the “Talking Statues” exhibit of London, in which, walking throughout the city, tourists could scan QR codes on monuments and, instantaneously, receive a phone call from the statue itself. Baltes, amid her dissertation work through 2016 and transition to working as an assistant professor at Coastal Carolina University, didn’t quite have the bandwidth or the budget to replicate London’s technology. But Statues Speak, an effort from Duke’s Wired! Lab for Digital Art History & Visual Culture, finally launched this past spring: During Blue Devil Days, visitors found the campus’ six full-body bronze statues gracefully tagged with square, Duke-blue signs. By scanning the QR code on each, they were directed to a link to hear the statues’ stories, told in the first-person.

Statues are “certainly not neutral. They have agendas, and they have specific stories that they’re trying to tell,” says Baltes. “And even though the statues on Duke’s campus are fairly benign, I still want to highlight this idea that statues have a particular story.”

In this case, “we have to choose what to put in the story, what to leave out,” she says. Baltes’ team, which included Duke and Coastal Carolina undergraduates, researched biographies and wrote the scripts (each recording is about a minute long), chose speakers (both President Vincent E. Price and his predecessor, Richard H. Brodhead, voice statues), and, in some cases, decided which statues were worth highlighting.

Over on the medical campus, the 65th General Hospital Memorial statues feature, in a group of four, a nameless female nurse. It’s the only statue of a woman on campus, and now, through Statues Speak, Provost Sally Kornbluth lends her a voice. “It’s a really moving script, and I think it’s really important to highlight female contributions to campus,” says Baltes.

Highlighting untold stories is also the mission of Activating History for Justice at Duke. The Bass Connections project, which began in the fall of 2016, recently released a 100-page report examining the university’s institutional memory—and suggesting how to improve it.

Monuments, says Robin Kirk, the project director and the faculty co-chair of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, are “not so much about history as they are about lifting up who we should be admiring and who we should be thinking about and who we should be thanking.”

Kirk’s team of students digitally mapped Duke’s campus and documented 327 sites (such as plaques, statues, and buildings) highlighting Duke’s history. Women are represented in less than 15 percent of these sites; African Americans, less than 3 percent. “If we’re only celebrating white people, and among them, white men,” says Kirk (53 percent of sites highlight the latter), “it really does send a message to the other, very valued people in our community that they’re not honored and they’re not lifted up.”

As part of the project, students also compiled a Story Bank—accessible on the project’s website—that identifies important figures worth recognizing at Duke. They developed recommendations, such as renaming the Carr Building and East Residence Hall, and proposed sites that would highlight, among others, the first five African-American undergraduate students to enroll at Duke following desegregation and Oliver Harvey, a leader of Duke’s first labor union.

“I think one really big statement that I learned from this is erasure is the most violent thing, or one of the most, violent things, that can happen,” says Helen Yu ’18, the project’s student manager. “And therefore, remembering is one of the most profound acts of resistance.”

For Duke, these projects merely represent a departure point. Statues Speak is now part of a Bass Connections project, Building Duke, a three-year initiative that will examine the historical narrative of the campus’ physical environment. And while Activating History for Justice at Duke has completed its report, the discussion is just beginning. The administration wants to engage with these issues, Kirk says, and the project’s website is already receiving submissions to its Story Bank.

“I hope people see this as more of an invitation to do what we’re supposed to be doing,” says Kirk. “To educate, to investigate, to learn.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.