Statues & Pictures: Thinking Through Commemoration at PNC

Today at Sport in American HistoryJosh Howard has an excellent post discussing the Pirates removal of statues celebrating Negro League’s legends from Legacy Square at PNC Park. You should go read it! The post provides a nice overview of the Pirates history honoring the Negro Leagues and the displays at Legacy Square. But what I found most interesting was a small comment hidden near the bottom of the post  about “passive commemoration.”

The banners as a form of passive commemoration are fine, but they are absolutely no substitution for the active interpretation of the original Legacy Square space.

This line highlights the important of understanding the best practices of public history. While Josh doesn’t fully explain what he means by explaining the difference between passive commemoration and active interpretation in the post, he is absolutely right on the profound difference it makes for visitors to Legacy Square. And I think, noting these difference might hint at America’s unwillingness to talk about things like race and the color line.

Legacy Park with the statues.

Legacy Square with the statues.

It may not seem like much of a difference having banners with pictures and names that honor players instead of full-size statues, but it is. Statues promote what I would call “active commemoration” (because I don’t know think they can actively interpret by themselves) because they force visitors to, almost literally, face the past. A young child walking through Legacy Square would see the large statues and ask questions, such as: Who are they? Why are they there? What are their names/stories? The same child may not even notice the new banners or (be able to) read the names on them.

Similarly, statues offer a great photo opportunity for fans and tourists. I love to visit new ballparks, historic sites, etc. I tend to take a lot of photos and share them with my friends on Facebook or Instagram. I don’t think I’ve taken a photo of a banner. Taking pictures is sometimes a silly act, especially if you strike a pose interacting with them like many of us do. But, snapping photos serves some important purposes. First, it simply highlights the fact that they are noticed. Being noticed is important, it means someone has read the statue and feels that it is “cool” or “significant” enough to remember and possible share. Sharing is where pictures become more significant, I think. When I take a picture and share it with my friends, I am extending the commemoration of the players. If they write captions for the photos (I’m notorious for my long, witty captions on Facebook), then they’re also helping to interpret and prompt others to learn a bit more. This could also potentially start conversations about the players and the Negro Leagues.

Legacy Park without the statues.

Legacy Square without the statues.

Taking pictures, asking questions, and having these conversations — both on site, at home, or on social media — is an important part of remembering and honoring these players. It is an important part of coming to grips with our racist past, too. 

Active commemoration entices us to take notice and engage. As I explained above statues are great at this. Passive commemoration, such as the new banners, let s visitors off easy. Sure, the team is still honoring the players. Fans can still read the names and think about their careers and impact on the game, but it’s not something that their confronted with. You have to go looking for it. Sadly, this passivity is how many Americans treat issues of race. It’s something that they’ve learned about — slavery, the Civil War, and Civil Rights — that is now history. On a few occasions we celebrate major figures or milestones, but largely that history is absent from our daily lives unless we look for it. Few baseball fans are going to look for it. And if they do find it, because of the changes in Pittsburgh, the imposing size and humanness of it will be absent.

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