To practice public history in the wake of the political and social upheavals of 2020 invariably involves fielding questions about monuments: What is their place in a shared landscape? What political messages do they communicate? When should monuments be protected and when should they topple? The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked a renewed set of protests and debates about the presence of Confederate and Civil War monuments in public spaces, which quickly spread to those dedicated to other historical figures and events with ties to enslavement, genocide, and dispossession. Erin L. Thompson's Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America's Public Monuments provides a helpful overview that situates these debates in a long historical trajectory, while revealing the political, social, and practical hurdles confronting communities across the United States as they rethink monumentation.

Thompson divides her work into two thematic sections: “Rise” and “Fall.” The four chapters that make up “Rise” provide a rich historical overview of the creation of America's monumental landscape and contestations of those monuments, from the statue of King George III toppled by American revolutionaries to the creation of Stone Mountain in Georgia, a carving that features Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson. Thompson situates monuments as significant tools in advancing the cultural and political agendas of white elites. She reserves special attention for Civil War monuments, seen as expressions of white supremacy that “visually defined the rules for interactions between white and Black Americans” in the post-Civil War South (38). Thompson draws from the ubiquitous monuments of Confederate soldiers at parade rest atop a simple granite shaft, a posture intended to show obedience and persuade white southerners to unite racially, rather than develop interracial class solidarity within industrializing workplaces. Much of Thompson's opening discussion covers well-trod historiographical terrain, and her case studies will be familiar to scholars of memory and public history. Thompson builds on the scholarship of Kirk Savage and Karen Cox to establish links between statues, power, and authority in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While some readers may be familiar with Thompson's objects of analysis, the clarity of her writing makes these scholarly discussions accessible to a much wider audience.

The second half of Smashing Statues pivots to a practical consideration of the related obstacles confronting communities, public historians, and local politicians. Here, Thompson's scholarship is enriched by her use of interviews with activists, officials, and museum professionals engaged in recent controversies. In these case studies, she illuminates the dynamics surrounding the removal of roughly 170 monuments in the aftermath of Floyd's death. By Thompson's estimate, approximately 80 percent were taken down by local officials rather than protesters. But even when activists and local officials were aligned in approach, they grappled with an “invisible forcefield of legal protections” that can impede action (138). Since 2015, at least six states have passed legislation that protects monuments from removal or requires their relocation to an equally prominent public site. Such legal protections can mire efforts in bureaucratic gridlock and complicate creating a transparent process for removal.

Beyond simple removal, the remaining options for America's monuments are not much better, Thompson admits. Monuments resituated to museums present unique interpretive challenges. Likewise, adding new statues to the landscape fails to confront the problems posed by extant monuments; these new memorials may “fall into the same traps as the old ones” (155).

Thompson suggests that a productive way forward involves developing a clear, though largely undefined, public process for monument removal. This means changing “how we see” monuments and “uncover stories . . . to startle us out of our assumptions” (178). Thompson's analysis of Stone Mountain models this approach, revealing how it developed as a get-rich-quick scheme for sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who drew financial support from the Ku Klux Klan and the Daughters of the Confederacy, among other wealthy white supremacists in 1920s Georgia. Surely, Thompson argues, if present-day viewers understood Stone Mountain not as a “shrine to the South” but a “shrine to a scam,” public enthusiasm for the monument's continued presence would wane (93). Smashing Statues makes a compelling contribution to the debates surrounding our shared monumental landscape by distilling the historical and contemporary controversies surrounding monuments into an approachable and accessible text.