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Minnesota is considering changing the rules governing monuments on the grounds of the Capitol

The change was proposed after the toppling by protesters of a statue of Columbus in 2020, when it became clear there wasn’t a formal process for asking for a monument’s removal.

The Special Forces in Laos memorial that commemorates the Hmong secret war has a moving simplicity, and comes with a very informative plaque.
The Special Forces in Laos memorial that commemorates the Hmong secret war has a moving simplicity, and comes with a very informative plaque.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The Minnesota state Capitol grounds are like a history museum displaying different eras of public art, everything from 19th century panegyric statues to plant-based experiential sculpture. The two dozen or so monuments spread across the capital constitute our state’s most important public space, and its artworks reveal how Minnesota’s powerful groups have seen themselves over the years.

But just because they’re often made of granite doesn’t mean capital monuments should be set in stone and unchangeable. Up for public comment this month, a new state policy will make it possible to legally remove or modify a capital public artwork for the first time. After more than a century of accumulation through shifting historical tides, the new process could make the state’s monuments a more dynamic reflection of our shared history.

The Columbus incident

Until now, the only way to remove a problematic statue was in an act of civil disobedience. This happened in 2020, as a group of mostly Native American demonstrators pulled the statue of Christopher Columbus from its base after years of advocating for its removal because of his genocidal legacy. At the time, critics of the demonstrators — one of whom was formally charged with criminal damage to property — pilloried the action for not following the proper public procedures, an impossible task.

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“The Capitol board did not have a formal process outlined for people to propose that a work would be modified or removed,” explained Merritt Clapp-Smith, who took over as Executive Secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB) last year.  “This became clear when Columbus was pulled down. People questioned what process should have been followed, and who was in charge.”

toppled statue of Christopher Columbus
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi
State Patrol officers stand guard as employees of Twin Cities Transport and Recovery work to clear the toppled statue of Christopher Columbus.
The CAAPB, the obscure government committee led by the lieutenant governor, has an office of only two and a half employees and oversees land use across the Capitol area. Legally controlling a large swath on the edge of downtown St. Paul, the board is ultimately responsible for the approval of monuments.

This month, thanks to years of public process meetings and task forces, the official silence on memorial removal is changing. The Board has submitted new draft rules that allow the citizens of Minnesota to think of the Capitol monuments in a less permanent and more evolutionary way. The change, a defined legal process called “rulemaking” overseen by a judge, could allow for the introduction, removal, or modification of Capitol monuments.

Explicit rules changes

“It’s not as much a shift in philosophy, as being responsive to input that the Capitol Board has been hearing for a number of years,” Clapp-Smith told me. “How do we continue to add works, or decide on the types of works for Capitol Mall, that represent the breadth of Minnesota history and its people?”

The new rules clarify guidelines and procedures for addition, removal, and modification of the public art on the Capitol grounds. Based around key principles — that memorials are intended “to memorialize and remember; to inform and inspire the viewer; to have lasting historic and cultural significance; and to accentuate and enhance the urban landscape” — the detailed, legal language promises to make it more transparent how people can go about adding or subtracting artwork.

Hubert H. Humphrey statue
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
A statue honoring Hubert H. Humphrey stands on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol.
In addition, the rules reiterate some firm thresholds, including rules for depictions of individuals: they must have been dead for 10 years, and must have spent at least five years on Minnesota terrain. (Please note that neither Columbus nor Leif Erikson ever set foot in the territory known today as Minnesota; if suggested under the new rules, they would be ineligible.)

In some ways, the rules are a direct response to the Columbus incident, but Clapp-Smith points out that the calls for changes have been happening for years. Many people across the state have long been looking for capital public artworks better adapted to the changing times.

“When do we recognize that history and people’s view and values of history have shifted?” wondered Clapp-Smith. “There may be some works that previously had a certain meaning, and values that have changed over time. The rules provide space for evolution of works, so that they can move along with the evolution of Minnesota’s history and people.”

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Highlights from the Capitol monuments tour

Despite claims to timeless values, the Capitol monuments have always been political, fixed firmly in their particular moments.

Take the “progress of the state” (aka the “quadriga”), probably the most revered work on the grounds. It’s intentionally meant to mimic conquering Roman legions, and if you want to pick nits, I’m not sure that’s the best symbol for the state identity. Even in 1906, there was a political campaign against the sculpture, with one legislator trying in vain to swap it for a statue of Alexander Ramsey. (Given Ramsey’s track record advocating for the genocide of Dakota people, it’s fair to say that the state dodged another controversy there.)

Likewise, many of the nineteen existing Capitol artworks can be neatly separated into the figurative and abstract. In the former category, you have world historical figures like Christopher Columbus and Leif Erikson alongside more obscure locals like early governor John A. Johnson or Hubert Humphrey.

The “Progress of the State” is probably the most revered work on the grounds. It’s intentionally meant to mimic conquering Roman legions.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The “Progress of the State” is probably the most revered work on the grounds. It’s intentionally meant to mimic conquering Roman legions.
At the same time, not every statue proposal goes swimmingly. In 1997, a coalition of politicians tried to erect a statue of Coya Knutson, Minnesota’s first female member of Congress. The effort was vetoed by Governor Arne Carlson, who claimed (correctly) that she had not been deceased for a long enough duration.

These days, some of the older artworks remain controversial for various reasons. The statue of Knute Nelson is colored by his sponsorship of the 1889 Nelson Act, which effectively stole huge amounts of Ojibwe treaty land throughout the state. The Leif Erikson statue proclaims he was the “discoverer of America,” conjuring up problematic historical narratives around colonization. Meanwhile, the statue of Charles Lindbergh, one of the most famous Minnesotans of the 20th century, has not aged well given his white supremacist beliefs.

An image of the Leif Erikson statue dedication in 1949.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
An image of the Leif Erikson statue dedication in 1949.
At the same time, anyone who has spent time around the Capitol probably has personal favorites among the public art. Personally, I love the Floyd B. Olson statue, whose raised hand continues to berate the occupants of the nearby State Office Building long after his demise. The Fallen Firefighters Memorial is simply a great sculpture, invoking claustrophobic heroism. The Special Forces in Laos memorial that commemorates the Hmong secret war has a moving simplicity, and comes with a very informative plaque. Meanwhile, the Korean War Veterans Memorial haunts me with each encounter.

(I won’t tell you my least favorite, but instead encourage anyone to visit the grounds yourself and make up your own mind.)

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Welcoming as many people as possible

Going into the future, having a clearer public process should allow for better public conversation about changing memorials. The new rules have the added benefit of clarifying future spats over who or what should be commemorated.

“The Capitol Board has heard loud and clear that people want to understand who’s making these decisions, and they want opportunity to provide their input,” explained Clapp-Smith.

The statue of Charles Lindbergh, one of the most famous Minnesotans of the 20th century, has not aged well given his white supremacist beliefs.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
The statue of Charles Lindbergh, one of the most famous Minnesotans of the 20th century, has not aged well given his white supremacist beliefs.
The public hearing for the rules changes will take place on March 14th, still virtually because of COVID, and anyone is welcome. Clapp-Smith said there hasn’t yet been much feedback, and they would love more public input.

The end goal is to have the state’s foremost public building surrounded by public art that welcomes as many people as possible.

“We want people to feel comfortable coming to the Capitol, that they can somehow see themselves as valued person at the Capitol,” said Clapp-Smith.  “Today there are people that don’t currently feel the works represent any part of their history in this state, their people, their experiences and contributions.”