Contested care: Two problematic monuments at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Pilar Brooks and Mayuli Santiesteban Quesada


Monuments play a significant role in how a society expresses its values, its priorities, its biases, and the context in which the majority wish to view their world. They serve as a constant catalyst for public interaction as a point of reference, a place for reflection, a site to learn about the world one inhabits, and to ascertain if one is welcome. Many communities, including the descendants of non-white immigrants and Native peoples, rarely see themselves appropriately depicted in such works. These sculptures can be classified under the umbrella term “contested monuments” when representing problematic historical figures or questionable portrayals of specific minority groups. When viewed in publicly accessible spaces, these monuments continue to perpetuate negative stereotypes and elevate troubling historical narratives. What is the role of cultural heritage institutions and conservators when tasked with the care of contested monuments? How can these responsibilities evolve as cultural contexts shift and how best can institutions navigate these changes?
This paper will explore the historical and contemporary contexts of two objects in the care of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA): Appeal to the Great Spirit by Cyrus Dallin (cast 1908, installed 1913) and the John Endecott Memorial (1937) constructed by architect Ralph Gray and sculptor Carl P. Jennewein. Appeal to the Great Spirit, which has prominently stood in the forecourt of the Museum since its installation, has long been a source of controversy for its stereotypical and romanticized representation of Native peoples. Cyrus Dallin (1861-1944), an advocate for advancing Native rights, nevertheless contributed to the harmful representation of Native peoples. The public presence and polarizing interpretation of the sculpture led the MFA to engage in an ongoing effort to recontextualize the work. Contrarily, the John Endecott Memorial, despite its equally, if not more, problematic immortalization of John Endecott, has mostly escaped notice. John Endecott (1588-1665) was a Puritan leader who eventually served as the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His brutal and inhumane treatment of Native peoples and Quaker settlers eventually led him to be rebuked by his contemporaries including King Charles II of England. This history leaves many questions as to why this sculpture was erected in the 1930s and why its presence has remained unchallenged. Though legally owned by the city of Boston, the pivotal role the Museum played in its creation and the possession of endowed funds for its care complicate the ethical responsibilities of the MFA to the memorial.

In the summer of 2021, MFA pre-program interns Pilar Brooks and Mayuli Santiesteban Quesada researched these two objects and devised theoretical approaches for their care and stewardship. Their research and proposals, presented here, will allow the MFA to engage with relevant stakeholders and the larger community to devise historically-grounded and contextualized action plans for the future of these sculptures at the MFA. 

2022 | Los Angeles | Volume 29