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Town hall explores function, history of Brown’s statues and monuments

Students, faculty, alums discuss ideas of colonialism, white supremacy at meeting surrounding proposal to restore, relocate Caesar Augustus statue

Brown students, faculty and alums logged onto Zoom to attend a town hall on the meaning and implications of the statues and monuments that decorate Brown’s campus.

Over seventy people tuned in to the “Brown University Statues and Monuments Town Hall,” which examined themes of colonialism, white supremacy and Indigenous representation. 

The event began with a panel consisting of the town hall’s joint hosts, including Dietrich Neumann, chair of the Committee on Public Art and professor of History of Art and Architecture; Peter van Dommelen, director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World and professor of archaeology and anthropology; and Junaid Malik ’20.5 from Decolonization at Brown, a student-run organization that advocates for the decolonization of the University’s academics, spaces and relationships.

As the first panelist, Neumann discussed the historical origin and layered political context of the Caesar Augustus statue located on Wriston Quadrangle; the restoration and relocation proposal for the statue was what initially brought the town hall together. A bronze replica of equal size and elaborate detail to the marble original located at the Vatican, the statue was first dedicated to and placed in front of Rhode Island Hall — now home to the Joukowsky Institute — in 1906. 

Neumann noted that the statue’s longtime placement at Brown is “extremely interesting” given that the United States had modeled itself after the Roman Empire in a spirit of “colonial imperialism” — a fact, he said, which can be seen in how American architecture remained predominantly neoclassical up until the 1940s.

Instead of leaving the heavily corroded statue in front of the Sharpe Refectory as a monument, Neumann suggested that the Caesar Augustus statue be restored and returned to its historic location at the Joukowsky Institute as an artifact with a thought-provoking legacy. 

Van Dommelen continued with an evaluation of the historical significance of the Caesar Augustus statue. Not only does the statue stand as a prominent feature of classics studies, but its presence also reflects the “ramifications of the ancient Mediterranean in the 21st century on this campus,” he said. 

Malik closed the panel by discussing the founding of the University and said that the statue perpetuates certain political views. Occupying Indigenous land, the University was created based on colonialism and a foundation of erasure, Malik said. He said that the statue represents Roman virtues directly linked to white supremacy and imperial domination fundamental to elite education at the University. 

The town hall then opened up discussion to all participants in an attempt to generate answers to critical questions, such as whether there is a place for Roman statues on Indigenous land, what understanding of the University is upheld by the monuments currently on campus and what should be done about current statues and monuments at Brown in the context of colonialism and white supremacy. 

Community members provided several suggestions, with some calling for the removal of the statue entirely and others asking for the statue to be replaced with another from an Indigenous artist. Another attendee said that the study of classical art does not necessarily have to be a white supremacist enterprise. 

Iryumugaba Biko ’21 spoke of the lasting symbolism of the Caesar Augustus statue. “It comes down to who we are, the stories we tell,” Biko said. “We’re learning white is better. This is problematic and a question of power relations.” 

Many students agreed that there should be more representation of Indigenous and African American artists in Brown’s public art, and emphasized the importance of financial assistance for local marginalized artists. 

Though a decision was not reached at the town hall as to whether the Caesar Augustus statue should be restored or relocated, Neumann said that he found the discussion very helpful. “The idea of engaging artists from the Indigenous community is a very good one,” he said at the event. “It’s very clear to me that there will be more art on campus from African American and Indigenous artists in the near future.”



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