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Rethinking Our Heroes

A new sculpture features a pedestal with nothing on top. It was designed that way for a reason.
A pedestal held up by many tiny human figures sits in front of the National Museum of Asian Art.
© Do Ho Suh, 2024. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Seoul, and London / National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, Photo by Colleen Dugan

Public Figures has a pedestal but no statue.

All over the United States, there are statues of famous people. Artists create large statues of people they want to honor and remember. They may put the statues on a pedestal, or base, to make them even taller. But a new sculpture in Washington, D.C., features a pedestal without a statue. It was designed that way for a reason.

The sculpture, called Public Figures, is a pedestal that stands 10 feet (3 meters) high and is being held up by dozens of tiny sculptures of people. Its creator, South Korean artist Do Ho Suh, did not put a statue of an individual on top because he wanted people to ask themselves: Why do we build statues of people, and who do we choose as our heroes?

In 2021, an organization called Monument Lab collected information about all the statues in the United States. It found that most of the people honored in statues were white, male, and wealthy, even though the nation owes its success to people of many different backgrounds. All those people who aren’t usually recognized are represented as the tiny figures holding up the pedestal of Public Figures.

The sculpture is now on display outside the National Museum of Asian Art in Washington, D.C.

Did You Know?

Portraits of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Christopher Columbus, St. Francis, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LC-DIG-ppmsca-19211), Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1954.9.2), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (00.18.2), NTB/Alamy, Heritage Images—Hultion Fine Art Collection/Getty Images; Photo composite Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Clockwise from left: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Christopher Columbus, St. Francis, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monument Lab made a list of the 50 individuals with the most U.S. public monuments in their name, as of September 8, 2021. The top five are pictured above, while the top 20 are listed below.

 

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. George Washington
  3. Christopher Columbus
  4. Martin Luther King Jr.
  5. Saint Francis of Assisi
  6. Robert E. Lee
  7. Casimir Pulaski
  8. Benjamin Franklin
  9. John F. Kennedy
  10. Thomas Jefferson
  11. Ulysses S. Grant
  12. Stonewall Jackson
  13. Jefferson Davis
  14. Marquis de Lafayette
  15. Andrew Jackson
  16. Theodore Roosevelt
  17. William McKinley
  18. Joan of Arc
  19. Nathan Hale
  20. William Shakespeare 

The Magic of Mammoth Cave

Human-made monuments may be impressive, but it’s hard to beat nature’s creations, especially caves. Between 10 and 15 million years ago, rainwater began percolating through the soil of what’s now Kentucky. Along the way, the water picked up carbon dioxide and became acidic. The acidic water squeezed through cracks in the area’s bedrock, causing the rock to dissolve. Openings in the rock formed and then grew very slowly over time until they became what’s now known as the Mammoth Cave system. 

There are caves all over the world. Some of them form in the way we just described, while others result from earthquakes or the flow of molten lava. But what makes Mammoth Cave unique is that it’s the world’s longest known cave. So far, explorers have mapped 426 miles of passages—nearly as long as the distance from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Cleveland, Ohio—and there’s a lot more left to explore.

Inside the cave, explorers have found clues to North America’s past. They’ve collected artifacts left behind by prehistoric Indigenous people. The cave is also full of fossils—even shark fossils dating from more than 300 million years ago, when there was a sea where Kentucky is today.

Mammoth Cave passages occur in a variety of shapes and sizes and are rife with geologic formations—signs that the cave system is still forming and growing. Check out the slideshow for some images of Mammoth Cave.

J.P. Hodnett/NPS, NPS Photo, NPS Photo, NPS Photo, David Kem/NPS, Thomas DiGiovannangelo/NPS, David Kem/NPS, NPS Photo

Caves of the World

Limestone walls are reflected in a cave pool.

© Vinicius Tupinamba/Dreamstime.com

There are caves all over the world, including this one, located at Chapada Diamantina National Park in Brazil. You can learn more about caves—how they form and where to find them—at Britannica!

WORD OF THE DAY

spelunking

PART OF SPEECH:

noun

Definition:
: the sport or practice of exploring or studying caves
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