How Removing Public Monuments Works

By: Dave Roos

History of Removing Public Monuments

Ukrainians destroy statue of Lenin
Anti-government protesters use a sledgehammer to destroy a statue of Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin on Dec. 8, 2013 in Kiev, Ukraine. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

An "iconoclast" is literally someone who breaks or tears down monuments or images of false gods, and iconoclasts have existed across the ages in all cultures.

In America, one of the opening acts of the Revolutionary War was to pull down a gilded lead statue of King George III in Manhattan. A crowd of soldiers and citizens toppled the statue on July 9, 1776 after hearing one of the first public readings of the Declaration of Independence [source: Dunlap]. In a symbolic twist, the statue was melted into 42,088 bullets that were then fired against British troops [source: D'Costa].


Invading armies have a long and sordid history of destroying monuments of conquered civilizations. The Spanish razed Aztec and other indigenous temples in the Americas so that Catholic cathedrals could be erected in their place. And in the 2010s, both Taliban and Islamic State soldiers have specifically targeted and destroyed priceless Middle Eastern antiquities including two giant statues of Buddha carved into a cliff in Afghanistan [source: Crossette].

Revolutions and regime changes are also popular times to tear down monuments. During the short-lived 1956 Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule, a crowd of revolutionaries in Budapest toppled a goliath bronze statue of Joseph Stalin. As communism spread across Eastern Europe and even to far-flung locations like Ethiopia, so did monuments dedicated to Vladimir Lenin. Many of these statues have since been torn down — including one in Ethiopia, using pickaxes — when communist regimes have fallen [source: Fortin].

Statues cast in the likenesses of dictators like Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and Saddam Hussein in Iraq were also pulled down and dismantled as the real-life strongmen fled into hiding [source: Fortin].

Cultural shifts can also spark the removal of monuments, as we're seeing with the Confederate monument controversy in the United States. The same thing has happened in various Latin American countries, where monuments to Christopher Columbus, previously venerated as a heroic explorer, have been removed for their imperialistic overtones. In 2004, protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, pulled down a bronze statue of Columbus, which the city eventually replaced with a monument to Guaicaipuro, an indigenous chief who tried to fight off the Spanish [source: Fortin].