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Four African American Civil War soldiers in uniform, marching in formation with bayonets on their right shoulders, backpacks, and hats on.

Memory, Museums, and the Once Known

In his book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, neuroscientist David Eagleman writes that we all die three deaths: “The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.” We all know we will die some time, but the idea that at some point our name will never again be spoken is disturbing. The memory of a name, after all, is a signifier that a life mattered.

What happens when a name is deliberately erased from the historical record? The intentional decision to remove a name is a way to communicate another person’s life was not worthy of remembrance—and therefore it was not significant. 

Outside of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama, with a grassy field in front, blue sky with scattered clouds
Six-foot Corten steel monument for Madison County Texas listing unknown two persons lynched on 4.15.1890 and one on 11.19.1895.
Looking up at a six-foot Corten steel monument for Anderson County Texas listing multiple unknown persons lynched on several dates.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama

I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2019. The memorial, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), is an important acknowledgment of the victims of racial terror lynchings. Set on a six-acre site, it consists of 800 six-foot Corten steel monuments, one for each US county where a lynching occurred. The names of victims are inscribed on the columns. The EJI documented more than 4,400 African American men, women, and children who were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, or beaten to death in 12 American states between 1877 and 1950. 

I was particularly saddened by the number of columns that simply identify victims as “Unknown.” People in the past decided that these deaths did not matter enough to record the victims’ names for posterity. Permanent erasure is the ultimate racist denial of a person’s humanity. African Americans still struggle to have their humanity acknowledged and valued, as we recognize by the Black Lives Matter movement. And in 2014 the African American Policy Forum launched a #SayHerName campaign to focus awareness on each Black woman and girl who has been the victim of police violence. 

Sadly, museums often have many objects for which the name of the original owner or maker is not recorded. At the National Gallery of Art, 4 percent of the works in the permanent collection are identified as having been made by an “anonymous” artist. Encyclopedic museums with global collections that include African, Native American, Oceanic, and Asian artwork have an even higher percentage of makers described as “anonymous.” At the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where I served as director, 25 percent of the works in the collection are identified as made by “anonymous.” The use of “anonymous” is worse than “unknown” as it implies artists intentionally withheld their name so they could be forgotten by history. We now concede that the early anthropologists and ethnographers who collected these objects were rarely interested in the identity of the individual or the people who made them. 

Indigenous objects on display like textiles such as baskets and wooden tools at the National Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia

Installation view, Colony: Frontier Wars (March 15–November 18, 2018), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Photo: Tom Ross

On a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, Australia, I was moved to see that indigenous objects collected in the past were described as having been made by artists who were “Once Known.” This phrasing recognizes that these works were created by people who once had families and friends—and names.

Myles Russell-Cook, curator of Indigenous art at NGV, acknowledges that we are more likely to have the name and details of the European who collected an object than those of the original maker. He wrote, “It is essential to remember that every ‘Unknown’ artist was ‘Once Known.’ The production and the initial reception of these works was deeply embedded in a web of relationships between the individual makers and their community, culture and place, and the mere fact that these relationships were not recorded does nothing to change that.”

August Saint-Gaudens, Shaw Memorial, 1900, patinated plaster, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire

August Saint-Gaudens, Shaw Memorial, 1900, patinated plaster, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire

At the Gallery, the Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens honors Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the men of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American regiment raised in the North during the Civil War. Shaw led the attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina on July 18, 1863. The colonel died that day, and around one-third of the enlisted men of the 54th Regiment were killed, captured, or declared missing. Saint-Gaudens originally intended to create an equestrian statue honoring Shaw alone. At the request of Shaw's parents, the final bas-relief instead shows the colonel with the volunteers of the 54th Massachusetts marching to war.

Today, museum visitors are often drawn more to the depiction of the African American members of the regiment than to the commanding presence of Shaw, yet it is the white artist of this memorial and the white colonel who are named and remembered. As far as we know, no actual survivor of the attack on Fort Wagner is depicted. Over the decade that Saint-Gaudens worked on the monument, he modeled the soldiers on unnamed men near his studio in New York City—unidentified Black men who stood in for other unidentified Black men. 

Through archival research in Civil War military and pension records, we have compiled the names of the more than 1,500 men who served in the regiment throughout the war.

Say their names.