Replacing the Columbus Statue: Michael Mercil's Monument for the People of Columbus, Ohio

A statue-free, 22-foot-wide platform creates an open space for the public to be heard at City Hall.

Peter Tonguette
An illustration of Michael Mercil's Monument for the People of Columbus, Ohio

Last summer, when protests against racism and police brutality were overflowing throughout Central Ohio, artist Michael Mercil felt a little on the sidelines. 

“I’m over 60,” says Mercil, a professor in Ohio State University’s Department of Art, who, when bicycling by a protest or other organized activity Downtown, would stay masked and on the outside of whatever was going on. “Even though I was present, I wasn’t in the center, purposely, of any particular crowd.” 

Designing a proposed replacement for the Christopher Columbus statute at City Hall has given Mercil a chance to participate in a conversation about race and civic involvement in his adopted hometown—but on his own terms. His idea, Monument for the People of Columbus, Ohio, is inspired by the oval form of a wooden Shaker box owned by Mercil. The proposed stone structure, meanwhile, subverts the traditional monument form: A winding ramp leads to an empty, statue-free platform, where community members can congregate. 

Michael Mercil

The kernel for the idea came to Mercil in the early 1990s, when he was working as a public art consultant in Minneapolis. He wondered why no memorials existed at the state Capitol in tribute to those who serve, such as public servants, waitresses and nurses. “I already had in the back of my mind this notion that: ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be interesting to build a memorial that was not an image?’” he says. 

Mercil has no fixed ideas about how the public might use the monument, but that’s just the point. “Democracy isn’t just about politics,” he says. “It’s also one of those things that allows us to lead our lives and occupy space as equals.” 

In fact, the most prominent feature of the monument is not an image but two words, 28-inch-high letters, emblazoned on the front: “Just Us.” The phrase comes from the title of a recent book by Black writer Claudia Rankine, which, in turn, is derived from a quote by Black comedian Richard Pryor: “You go down there looking for justice. That’s what you find—just us.” 

Perhaps the monument’s wittiest element is its subtlest: Just as the now-gone statue of Columbus was 22 feet high, Mercil’s platform is 22 feet wide. “I had seen images of Christopher Columbus horizontal on a truck bed as it left the site,” Mercil says. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s a fitting metaphor. Time to lay that image down and make room for another image.’ ”