A Statue’s Fate


Penn State art history professor Brian Curran has spent a career studying statues, monuments, and memorials. For him, the rise and fall of the bronze version of Joe Paterno has a special fascination. Here’s a longer version of the interview with him that appeared in the Sept.-Oct. 2012 issue of The Penn Stater. Interview by Tina Hay ’83 Bus.

How far back does this tradition of erecting statues of famous people go?

It goes far back into antiquity, and probably began with funerary sculpture and votive dedications in temples. During the New Kingdom [of ancient Egypt], large-scale statues of Egyptian pharaohs were set up in and in front of temples. The pharaoh Ramses II commissioned hundreds of these. The ancient Greeks erected statues of rulers and other notables, especially in later, Hellenistic times, and that was a tradition that carried on into ancient Rome.

From the Renaissance onward, the tradition was elaborated on, with popes, kings, generals, and other notables being commemorated by effigies and public monuments.

The closest modern equivalent, I suppose, is Chairman Mao in China, or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

But the tradition of commemorative statues also flourished in modern democracies. Think of the statues of statesmen in the statuary hall in the U.S.Capitol, or the many statues of Lincoln and Washington. Most of these have been commissioned after the subject’s death, although there are exceptions, like the life-sized statue of George Washington that was commissioned by the Virginia state legislature and installed in the state capitol building in Richmond in 1796, after Washington’s retirement but three years before his death.

More recently we’ve had statues erected in Washington, D.C., of FDR—including one showing him in his wheelchair, which is interesting because he never showed himself in his wheelchair—and of Martin Luther King Jr.

What happened when somebody would fall out of favor?

The tradition of removing—or, in some cases, desecrating or tearing down—statues goes back to ancient Egypt as well. There were a number of pharaohs who were erased from history. One was Queen Hatshepsut, who proclaimed herself king. When she died, she was replaced by Thutmose III, who erased her memory. Her image had been carved out of reliefs in her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, one of the most famous temples in Egypt, and scores of colossal statues were dumped into a great pit, just destroyed. They could easily have re-carved them into the likeness of Thutmose III, but they didn’t. They threw them all in. They shattered not just limestone statues, but granite statues, into bits, which takes a certain amount of effort. They were found in the 20th century, reconstructed from all these bits, and now they’re in the Metropolitan Museum.


Penn State art history professor Brian Curran, with an Egyptian lion in Rome.

In ancient Rome they even had a name for the practice: damnatio memoriae, which means the eradication of the memory. The emperor Domitian is a famous example: After he was assassinated, and was declared a tyrant by the senate, his name was removed from monuments and his statues were taken down. But the Romans, being practical, wouldn’t just topple a statue—they would re-carve the face, or replace the head with a new one. Sometimes a statue would be made into the new ruler, like Minerva or Trajan. Re-carving of ruler portraits is a major issue in the study of Roman art; it’s fascinating.

In modern times we’ve seen the removal of many statues of dictators and other officials. Sometimes the fallen statues have been preserved—Moscow has a whole museum of Soviet figures who were overthrown; it’s called Fallen Monument Park.

In more modern times, people also have been airbrushed out of photos.

That happened during the Stalin era in particular, because he kept purging members of the original Lenin-era revolutionary group. And I think it happened again under Kruschev, when he “de-Stalinized” and removed Stalin’s body from the Lenin mausoleum. In both cases, ships or towns that had been named after them were renamed.

So, for the people who saw Paterno as helping cover up Sandusky’s crimes, removing his statue was like a modern form of damnatio memoriae.

Yes, you could say that. But what really reminds me of damnatio memoriae is the vacating of Paterno’s wins. It’s like the wins never happened. That’s sort of the nastiest kick, isn’t it? Because so many people who played during that 14-year era also had their wins erased. But there will always be an asterisk, and they might even be restored someday; we don’t know.

Removing the statue seemed to me less of a damnatio memoriae, in part because the Paterno name stayed on the library, and because President Erickson’s statement said the statue had become divisive and a potential source of conflict.

Paterno_statueRight, my sense was that the decision was not so much a statement about Paterno himself, but more a reaction to the public discourse that had gotten so wildly out of control.

I suspect that’s right. You had the TV pundits saying, “The statue’s gotta go,” and the airplane towing the banner saying “TAKE THE STATUE DOWN OR WE WILL.” Even the fact that there had been a riot when Joe was fired probably played a part in the decision on the statue, don’t you think?

If you go back to when the statue was erected in 2001, it was in celebration of Joe’s 324th victory, the one that put him past Bear Bryant. The statue was sort of sprung on him, and there are stories that he didn’t like it. But it was affectionately conceived, and it became a place to go to get your picture taken, like the Nittany Lion Shrine. It became a part of the popular iconography of Penn State. And that’s what it was for 10 years. Until Paterno was fired, and then, especially, after he died.

And then what changed?

Then it became Joe. It became the public image, the public embodiment of Joe Paterno and everything the man was believed to stand for. That transformation began with the great outpouring of visits to, and the offering of gifts to, the statue when he died. Candles, letters, flowers, gifts, teddy bears.

You have this guy who was a coach here for 60 years, a person a lot of people either met or knew. Sure, he won a lot of football games, but he also donated money to the library and to the College of the Liberal arts, and had this idea of the Grand Experiment—success with honor, this idea of athletes adhering to scholastic standards, with no tolerance for sleaze or corruption. A virtuous man who lived modestly, who had studied Virgil, an old-school, Greatest-Generation type of guy. To a lot of people he was a father, a grandfather.

At the same time, for others the statue became the symbol of Joe’s association with the Sandusky case, of his perceived failure to act appropriately when confronted with allegations of child abuse. And for critics who saw the “culture of reverence” for football as contributing to the apparent cover-up, the statue seemed to embody an almost dictatorial hubris, an institution’s willingness to place PR and sports culture over the safety of children. So the statue became the focus of a conflict between these two visions of Paterno’s legacy.

If you were in charge, what would you do with the statue?

I don’t think it should be destroyed. It’s part of the history of Penn State. The historian’s position is always one of preservation; we want everything to survive, become part of the archive. I mean, we’re pack rats. If it were up to me, I would keep the statue safely tucked away, wait a few years, and see if some sort of consensus begins to emerge about the scandal and Paterno’s place in it. One proposal that came up was to move the statue to the All Sports Museum, which could be a good idea. I don’t think the library makes sense; it’s a little big for a library monument. I could see a time sometime in the future when the statue would be exhibited in the All Sports Museum, preferably as part of an installation that shows its history and how it ended up there. Contextualize the statue, in other words. Historicize it. Provide it with natural light so people can still get their pictures.

But I’m not expecting something like this anytime soon. Because there’s no consensus yet.

Tina Hay, editor

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