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  • Fluid Objects:Speculations on Monumentality
  • Moira O'Shea (bio) and Masha Vlasova (bio)

On the morning of September 12, 2018, in front of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Historic Hotel and Terminal Station Museum in Tennessee, a carved limestone statue was tied with rope and lifted onto a Tucker Build company truck. The statue was of a white, bearded, middle-aged man wearing a frock coat, circa nineteenth century. Loaded onto the truck, the statue was returning to the city of Muncie, Indiana, after having been missing for over fifty years.1

Originally standing in a third-story alcove of a building named after his family, the 8-foot statue of Charles Willard came down during the demolition and rebuilding of Muncie's downtown in 1961. It was lost until 2016, when Bob Good, a board member of the Delaware County Historical Society in Muncie, rediscovered it. For thirty years it had been standing in the courtyard of the Chattanooga Choo Choo Historic Hotel and Terminal Station, without a pedestal or a plaque to indicate whom the statue depicted. Most visitors to the hotel were under the impression that the statue commemorated Confederate president Jefferson Davis or the Union Army spy, James J. Andrews.2 In the imaginations of those around the statue, the stone figure of a stately looking man, with no pedestal or plaque to indicate whom it depicted, had become a monument. These speculative readings of Willard as Davis, as Andrews, as a monument and the movement of Willard on and off pedestals exemplify its semiotic and material fluidity.

The rediscovery and reidentification of the statue occurred a year after the Charleston church massacre of 2015 and the subsequent removal of many Confederate symbols around the country. In total, the Southern Poverty Law Center counted over one hundred removals since Charleston.3 Recalling Good's discovery of the Willard statue, Chris Flook, then president of the Delaware County Historical Society, was cognizant of the national mood at the time: "How the hell do [End Page 285] you bring a statue back particularly at a time when all this discussion of statues is going on? You don't want to piss anyone off. We were trying to be sensitive to that."4 While Flook knew that the statue was of Charles Willard, and not Jefferson Davis or James Andrews, his desire to be sensitive to how the removal and replacement of the statue might be understood as revelatory of the political stock that private individuals and government administrations were placing in figures in stone at the time.

The example of the Willard statue confounds the idea of a monument as affixed with concrete and inflexible readings. By illuminating this statue's fluidity, this example invites us into the world of the speculative. However, in moving, removing, or physically manipulating monuments, we may also consider new ways of imagining how the past might be represented in a speculative future. In the following paragraphs, we take up the idea of this Special Issue through a consideration of the fluidity and impermanence of monuments, objects which represent the past, and which can be remade for new futures.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and two years after the return of the Willard statue, there has been a new wave of removals, much more all-encompassing than the last. Instead of waiting for state legislatures or local governments to dismantle and haul away symbols of the Confederacy, protestors

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Figure 1.

Empty pedestal after the removal of the monument to P.G.T. Beauregard, New Orleans, LA, 2018. Photo courtesy of Moira O'Shea.

[End Page 286] are taking direct action, and the objects of attention are not only Confederate generals and soldiers but also other controversial historical figures such as Christopher Columbus and Juan de Oñate. During protests that have begun in the United States and spread to other parts of the world, activists are doing more than simply dismantling and removing unwanted monuments; monuments are beheaded, set on fire, and sometimes tossed in a river or a lake. This is a departure from the state- or city-sponsored removal of monuments...