Iconoclasm: Questions of Veneration, Destruction and Power

We are in turbulent times and the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology (MMA) joins you in reflecting on them with our online exhibition video Iconoclasm: Questions of Veneration, Destruction and Power. In July 2020, with the ongoing protests around the world in response to the killing of George Floyd, we created this online exhibition. It presents an examination of global upheaval and protests past and present around contentious (if not explosive) public monuments and memorials. An exhibition of the same title that was on view at our museum in 2017 as part of our “current issues in anthropology series,” served as the springboard to broaden and deepen our approach as we revisited this topic. In both, questions of social justice, human rights and the sometimes-violent struggle for dignity were at the exhibition’s core.

The MMA is a relatively small museum with limited resources. We lack, anybody currently on staff with the specific skills or training to develop online content, nor have we any access to particularly sophisticated software or platforms. However, with the advent of the global Covid-19 pandemic, as we at the museum were all sent to work from home, we dedicated ourselves to continue developing the same exhibitions and public programs that addressed the human experience and issues of historic and contemporary concern. We worked with the resources at hand to provide at-home access and develop online content. The production of the online exhibition video was achieved through the use of Adobe Premiere Pro software, on home laptop computers by the MMA curator and MMA graphic designer – a work/study graduate student in architecture at the University of New Mexico.

We decided to build the flow of images and narrative in the exhibition not in a linear fashion. Rather we adopted a circular flow, moving back and forth and around in the narrative, from local, to national to global, and from concept to example and back to concept so that our audiences could engage with events and concepts and observe and query their interrelatedness.

“As long as humans have created symbols, others have sought to destroy them, creating cycles of veneration and destruction.” This is the overarching concept we invite audiences to grapple with in the exhibition and the exhibition’s opening line. Iconoclasm, the destruction of sacred images or representations, is relevant to the work we do in anthropology museums, where much of what we do is preserve objects of cultural or ideological significance.

However, the introductory images and case study we present depicts the defaced statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue, in Richmond, Virginia in June of 2020 – this exhibition went live just the next month. The statue has been a focal point of protests over the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American who was killed on May 25, 2020 with his hands handcuffed behind him while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. In the days and weeks that followed his death, numerous and ongoing protests took place in the United States and around the globe: protesting his death, police brutality, and the history of racism. Similar protests and counter protests had been happening for decades, and with growing intensity in the last few years.

Through the use of vivid photographs portraying the action, intensity and emotion experienced and expressed at such protests, and through descriptive and provocative narrative, we continue, through the exhibition, to travel variously, throughout the State of New Mexico, through the United States, and ultimately around the world, to visit monuments, memorials and protests, both current and past, in Afghanistan, Mexico, Hungary, China, Chile, Britain, Belgium and Nigeria.

Along the way, we define terms and offer glimpses into the long history of the creation of monuments and memorials and the counter action of destruction and iconoclasm. We come back full circle, returning to the United States to visit, through the lens of monuments and memorials, the history of colonization, slavery, the American Civil War, and racism. We sum up by visiting examples of new monuments that respond to the experience of invisibility, erasure, and brutality that many communities encounter when confronted with more traditional monuments that often pay homage to the very people who have oppressed them.

Our intention with this exhibition is to invite viewers to navigate and ask questions about the controversies and protests over public monuments and memorials and all that they represent, and to invite visitors to the exhibition to begin to imagine ways to reconcile injustices caused by the presence of such public monuments, or by their removal, or by the absence of monuments that reflect marginalized peoples and communities. We further invite visitors to the exhibition to join the MMA in restoring voices that have been silenced through the presence or absence of public monuments by drawing back the curtain on these issues. Through these actions, we aim to realize community by offering visitors a way to comprehend and situate the human experience of those affected by public monuments and by protests for or against them.

The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, a small museum with big ideas.