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John Muir: Statues and Trail Names
Subject area: Social Studies
Experience and Outcomes: SOC 2-02a, SOC 2-10a, SOC 2-15a, SOC 2-16b, SOC 3-15a
Since 2020, there has been much debate around statues, public monuments and street names that remember or glorify people involved in trans-Atlantic slavery and colonisation. John Muir's work is remembered in many ways today. There are memorials and statues to John Muir across Scotland and North America, as well as streets, parks, trails and schools all named after Muir(this will open in a new window) in remembrance of his positive contribution to modern conservation. Plants, animals, and even a small planet are also named in his honour.
- Find out more about the plants and animals named after John Muir(this will open in a new window)
- Discover 'JohnMuir', the minor planet(this will open in a new window)
Muir is remembered in museums, awards, and school classes as a benevolent man who wandered in the wild and sought to conserve nature. But John Muir did hold racist views against Black people and Native Americans. This article in (this will open in a new window)The Guardian briefly explains Muir's views, but you can find out more in Essential Muir: A Selection of Muir's Best (and Worst) Writings edited by Fred D White. This article by the Sierra Club (this will open in a new window)explores Muir's racist views and those of other founders of the Sierra Club, a club dedicated to protecting 'wild' places in the USA. Muir was a key founding member.
This learning activity will encourage pupils to consider who we commemorate and why. It will also encourage them to think critically about how we have conversations about individuals from history who we have memorialised.
Watch and learn
Videos are a valuable and engaging tool for contextualising your learning. We recommend sharing one of the following videos with your class to start:
- David Olusoga's video framing the issues around monuments(this will open in a new window).
- BBC Social's video about street names in Glasgow(this will open in a new window).
- The Museum of London(this will open in a new window) also offers excellent articles and videos about memorialisation.
Research and discussion
After sharing one or more of these videos with pupils, ask them to research street names and statues in your local area and ask the question: who is remembered and why? Are there any streets or parks named after John Muir? Pupils could physically visit these sites and locations, creating a small video similar to that made for BBC Social, or plan a route and research online. Questions for pupils to consider when looking at streets or monuments are:
- Does this person have a link to their local area? Is this why they were memorialised?
- How well known are they? Are there any other parks, trails, schools or statues dedicated to them?
- Was this individual well known in their time? What for?
- What might have led to this monument being erected or to something being named after them? Were there financial or political reasons for this decision?
- Is this the kind of person we would choose to celebrate today? Do their views and actions align with modern day values of equality and inclusion?
Museum exhibition activity
In his video, David Olusoga argues that the rightful place for many of these statues is a museum, where their complex histories can be told. Ask pupils to imagine that the streets signs and statues they have researched are now in their local museum. They are going to curate a mini-exhibition about these objects. They must write a museum label for each item and create a small pamphlet for visitors. What history and stories would pupils like to tell visitors about these objects? Ask pupils to work in small groups to write the labels and pamphlet and then share them with the class. You could also invite other classes to visit the mini-exhibition in your classroom.
Reflecting on learning:
- Did learners know about the huge amount of places and things named after John Muir?
- Had learners engaged with the ongoing political and social discussion about who we commemorate and why?
- Had learners ever thought about who monuments or street names in their local area are named after or why they are there?
- What do learners think of these individuals and the monuments to them?
- Think critically and engage with discussions happening in the current political and economic climate
- Share information about their local area and people significant to their local area
- Start to discuss and reflect on who in their community might be affected or upset by these monuments