What are the monuments we want for this moment?

1941 Mural by Earl Ledyard in the Gallatin County Courthouse depicting the salt trade. (Photo by Caroline M. Kisiel)

9 Mural in Gallatin County Courthouse photo by Caroline M

By Gabrielle Lyon, Executive Director

Read Time 3 minutes
April 26, 2024

I love Illinois. I love how complicated and diverse – racially, ethnically, geographically, philosophically – Illinoisians are. If you drive from Chicago to Equality, Illinois – population 526 – it would take about six hours. You’ll end up on the Ohio River and you’ll see Kentucky across the banks. 

And, if you’re lucky you’ll have a chance to talk with Mark and Nadine York.

The reason you’d be lucky is because they’re the type of people who invite you into the kind of conversation that can be hard to find; they make room for curiosity, they appreciate nuance, and they’re remarkably comfortable with things being complicated. 

They’re masters at making simple monuments of the everyday for everyday people. 

Mark and Nadine York video screenshot

Mark and Nadine York, 2024 Public Humanities Awards recipients

These days we’re getting opportunities to see monuments with new eyes thanks to efforts to bring untold, forgotten, and intentionally marginalized perspectives to the fore. We’ve got an awful lot of monuments in this country. We’ve got a lot of monuments in our state. The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War documented that 63 of our 102 counties have Civil War Monuments alone. The Monument Lab, (among other things), is on a quest to create a database of our nation’s monuments. Their research is helping us understand our national narrative through the monuments we have and raises important questions about the monuments we DON’T have.

The Yorks are two of our extraordinary 2024 Public Humanities Awardees. I got to know Mark and Nadine during the installation of the Spark! Places of Innovation exhibition with the Gallatin County Tourism Committee. They chose to develop a local companion exhibit detailing the history of salt extraction in Gallatin County. 

In a state that teaches us we were a “free state,” Gallatin County provides a historic caveat: there was a special provision in the 1818 Illinois Constitution legally permitting enslavers to bring in enslaved labor to work the salt mines. Outside the Spark! exhibit was an original salt kettle, one that would have been handled by enslaved workers. 

(You can check out the blog post by Road Scholar, Caroline Kissel to get a feel for her visit; and you can watch “People, Places, and Power: Gallatin County Edition,” which Mark helped to plan and produce, to get a history of the area.)

Salt Kettle from Great Salt Spring 600x526

Salt kettle from the "Salt: Equality's First Innovation" companion exhibit to Spark!

For the Yorks, sharing the history held by Equality is not about being “positive or negative.” The history is something important and special to share, it’s about their community, and it’s about bringing people to a place that has a lot to offer. The Yorks, retired teachers, believe the humanities are about humanity: about love, care, and faith. When asked (as you can see in this video) what she would create a monument about, Nadine dreams into being a monument in every town in Illinois to help remind us that people, even in our state here in America, go hungry.

She makes me wonder: What are the monuments we want for this moment? What monuments might we imagine, together, for one another? How might monuments in Illinois be different from all other monuments?

Inspired by another of our inimitable 2024 Award Honorees, Jane Saks of Project& and Monuments2Movements, we’ll be asking supporters and participants of the May 22nd Luncheon to describe their communities and the monuments they would dream into being.

Jane Saks project and Cultural Equity precon cover

Jane Saks "project&" Cultural Equity Precon

Jane Saks project and Cultural Equity precon remember to remember

I hope you can join us in person – or virtually – on May 22nd. The dollars we raise get turned right back around into our communities through grants to small cultural organizations providing vital services, through educational programming that helps adult learners succeed, through free public programs that help us all learn, question, connect, and much more. Because access to public humanities means all of us have a chance to be able to imagine together the monuments that matter.