On August 13, 2015, UT Austin President Gregory Fenves announced his decision to move Pompeo Coppini’s statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the university’s South Mall to the Briscoe Center’s Research and Collections division in Sid Richardson Hall. On August 31, professional art handlers carefully placed the statue at a secure location on campus where it will be refurbished for interior display at the center within eighteen months.
In short, the Davis statue has been moved from a commemorative context on campus to an educational one, where it will be accessible for viewing, study, and discussion. As the home of one of the nation’s largest historical collections related to the South, the Civil War, and slavery, the Briscoe Center is well situated to preserve the Davis statue and to place it within its broader history.
The Davis statue will join other pieces of historically valuable art at the Briscoe Center, including Elizabet Ney’s original plaster of the Stephen F. Austin statue in the U. S. Capitol as well as the remarkable bronze of Speaker Sam Rayburn on display at the center’s Rayburn Museum in Bonham, Texas. The center is also home to the papers of George Washington Littlefield (who commissioned the Davis statue and others on campus), Pompeo Coppini, and numerous other collections related to public commemoration and historical imagery, such as the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection and the StudioEIS Archive.
The Briscoe Center plans to place the Davis statue in a new educational exhibit after the renovation of our Research and Collections division in Sid Richardson Hall is completed within the next eighteen months. This is a significant development in the evolution of the Briscoe Center into a history research center of the first class. With our renovation complete, we will add some 4,000 square feet of exhibit space to campus, solely dedicated to displaying the wealth of collections that exist here at the center. As we move swiftly into the construction phase of our renovation, we will keep researchers, students, and members of the public up to date with information regarding how our collections can be accessed during this time.
As a public institution, the University of Texas has the responsibility to carefully examine the political and cultural messages its architecture and monuments communicate. This important issue clearly demonstrates the abiding power that history, memory, and historical interpretation have in American culture. Fostering exploration of these historical forces is why institutions like the Briscoe Center exist. With the renovation soon to be completed, the center’s mission to further the cause of history and to cultivate wider understanding of our American past will be greatly strengthened.
Don Carleton, Ph.D.
J. R. Parten Chair in the Archives of American History