The fourth (and final?) home of the Jefferson Davis statue that spent 82 years in a University of Texas place of honor is an exhibit that centers more on the controversial statue than the Confederate statesman it depicts.
Standing 8 feet, 6 inches and freshly restored and unwrapped, the Davis statue now is at the Briscoe Center for American History (itself freshly restored and soon-to-be unwrapped) in an exhibit titled, “From Commemoration to Education.”
As you recall, the statue was removedfrom UT’s Mall Aug. 30, 2015 after the latest round of protests about it. UT President Gregory L. Fenves decided the Briscoe Center would be a more appropriate place.
The statue, originally cast in Brooklyn, was shipped to Chicago for rehab work.
“His patina has been restored,” said Ben Wright, a Briscoe Center assistant director.
His patina, yes. But there is no effort to restore Davis’s shine. The well-sourced exhibit makes no attempt to do so. The display is about the statue’s interesting history.
“We’re basically telling the history of the statue because by knowing the history of the statue we will hopefully get people to understand why it was there, where it came from, what the intention was and why it’s not a bad thing to have moved it to where it is now,” said Don Carleton, the Briscoe Center’s executive director.
“That’s the concept, to explain for those people who would like to have destroyed it, that it is in fact the work of an artist and we’re not into destroying art any more than we are into burning books,” Carleton said.
Before it was unceremoniously removed from campus, UT long struggled to find the words to explain why a statue of a Confederate leader had a place of honor on campus. Now UT is explaining why it’s back.
The exhibit offers a frank recounting of the history of the statue, which previously stood in a downtown bank building, Congress Avenue and the UT Mall with other statues. The display text notes that Pompeo Coppini’s statue of Davis was moved in 2015 “after an intense period of discussion and protest.”
We’re also told, “The memorial and its campus setting and context changed significantly over the course of its development.”
“The Davis statue has intermittently been the focus of student ire, academic debate, and official university investigation, especially since 1990. No longer an object of commemoration, the statue now forms part of an exhibit that explores the statue’s history, as well as its significance as both a work of art and evidence of the past,” the exhibit says.
There’s also a lot about wealthy former UT Regent George Littlefield, who commissioned the statue. The exhibit quotes a 1918 newspaper article noting, Littlefield belonged “to the Old South. He loves its history and traditions. He is zealous of those things which the generation that is now rapidly passing away stood for and believed in.”
Another exhibit label recalls that Littlefield, in a 1918 letter to the founder of the Jefferson Davis Homestead Association, hailed Davis as “the greatest man the south ever produced.”
Lest someone think otherwise, the exhibit says, “the statue’s presence in an educational exhibit — as opposed to a place of honor on campus — underlines the fact that Davis, as well as many of his ideas and actions, are no longer commemorated or endorsed by the university.”
Wright said the display — an expanded version of what will become the permanent display — is about “the journey we believe the statue has made.”
The exhibit includes fascinating documentation about the statue’s history, including this April 22, 1920, telegram from Elizabeth Coppini to her husband Pompeo during early contract negotiations in Austin about the statue: “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH THE CONTRACT AM WORRIED WIRE LIZZIE”
He did, five days later: “FOR GODS SAKE QUIT WORRING EVERYTHING ALL RIGHT HOME FRIDAY POMPO”
Wright acknowledges the “the fair amount of radioactivity” the statue generated and that it probably still exists.
Carleton said he expects to hear some complaints about the display from those upset that the statue is displayed anywhere and from those upset about the move of a what they see as “a sacred, holy sculpture that represents the best and brightest of his generation in the South.”
“I’m sure I’ll get it later,” he said of complaints, “probably sooner instead of later.”
Wright said, “There may be some people who think it should be in a crate in storage.”
Speaking of storage, some of you might remember that the day they removed Davis’ statue from the Mall, UT crews also removed a statue of President Woodrow Wilson that stood opposite — for symmetry, officials said. It is not yet making a public comeback. “The Woodrow Wilson statue has been cleaned and returned to storage here at UT,” said spokeswoman Shilpa Bakre. “There are no future plans for it at this time.”
It’s a funny thing about statues, Wright said. “They stand on plinths but there are really cultural foundations which holds them up,” he said. “And that cultural foundation shifts.”
“History,” Wright noted, “can be really gnarly.”
The remodeled Briscoe Center opens Monday. You’re invited to a Saturday open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Check it out. And I’d be interested in your thoughts about the Davis statue display. I think it’s well done.
I’m less interested in your thoughts about the photos in the display of sculptor Coppini in his underwear. Like history itself, historical photos can be gnarly.
See video with this column at mystatesman.com.