IWhat purpose do statues serve?
With a mix of pent-up fury and sudden elation, the protesters who toppled a bronze statue of the 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, on Sunday recalled the angry crowds that brought down statues of Saddam Hussein, Stalin and Lenin.
But when these demonstrators dumped the monument of Colston into Bristol Harbor with a splash, were they really forcing Britain to consider how to confront its racist history or engaging in civil vandalism in the same way that the Taliban destroyed ancient historical monuments throughout Iraq and Syria simply because they presented a threat to their totalitarian view of history or was it simply they did not have the understanding (dare one say the learning) to engage in a fulsome historical debate about the significance of these monuments and precisely where they fitted into the broader historical narrative which may indeed have represented fundamental challenges to their religious orthodoxy challenging their very nature of their spiritual and religious message? On a more modern note I wonder how many of the protestors over the weekend knew enough about the life and role of Edward Colston to critically debate his role in the history of Bristol aside from the fact that he was involved in the slave trade, confidently reaching a balanced conclusion that he was a villain wholly lacking in virtue.
Now the protesters are turning their sights on statues of Cecil Rhodes an even more potent symbol of Britain’s imperial and colonial past.
This was merely the latest in a succession of recent episodes that have fuelled global debates over the purpose of public monuments in society. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement, which began at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and then spread to Oxford University the following year, protested against statues of Rhodes on both universities’ campuses. Moreover, the past few years have seen ongoing campaigns in the US to have Civil War statues commemorating Confederate figures removed from public spaces. Counter-campaigners have sought to maintain those statues as they are. What these episodes all have in common is that, within each, monuments have become lightning rods for wider conflicts between competing visions of history.
Nations and communities have various options for dealing with controversial monuments. One is to remove them entirely. In some contexts, authorities have done precisely this. With the fall of Hitler’s Germany, for example, Nazi monuments throughout the former Reich were hastily pulled down, part of a wider effort to exorcise the spectre of National Socialism.
Some who oppose particular monuments do not wish to take them down entirely, however, asserting that simply removing a statue is tantamount to pretending a traumatic event in the past never happened. Rather, they advocate removing controversial statues while retaining their pedestals as a reminder of the events that they invoke. Accordingly, empty plinths throughout the US show that some communities have confronted their difficult pasts in this way.
Proponents of retaining controversial monuments have suggested that to remove them would be to efface a part of history. They argue that statues should be preserved because they teach people about the past. But is viewing a statue actually an effective way of learning about history?
An insightful way of answering this question is to examine the attitudes of past societies to their public monuments. Developments in 19th-century Europe, in particular, have the potential to unlock a fresh vantage point onto this contemporary issue. In that era, many political communities pursued state-building programmes that involved appropriating history to serve interests in the present. Nations devoted substantial energy and resources to commemorating heroes from the past in monumental form. Helke Rausch Lecturer in Comparative European History at the University of Leipzig whose research interests include comparative cultural history wrote an important work “Kultfigur Und Nation” (“Statues and the Nation”) on the political uses of statues in European capitals between 1848 and 1914 shows that major cities received dozens of new monuments: Paris gained 78 new statues, Berlin 59 and London 61. With good reason, historians often characterise the 19th century as an age of ‘statuomania’. According to Rausch, “Despite its indisputable creative power, the modern nation can best be understood as a cultural entity that collectivizes tradition and ascriptions of meaning. Building monuments is a - crucial - feature of national identification.’
Rausch makes a transnational comparison and opens monument topographies in the cities of Paris, Berlin and London. She examines how monuments have been used as an iconographic tool to construct the nation as a unit. The book offers a novel and insightful contribution to ongoing discourses regarding national identity and collective memory in late-nineteenth-century Europe, as well as debates regarding the invention of tradition more broadly.The book provides an excellent insight into intricate discourses on national self-image in the age of nationalism. In the meantime these monuments continue to shape the fabric of European cities.
So, how can the statuomania of the 19th century inform debates today?
Statues can teach us about history, but they do not convey some immutable truth from the past. Instead, they are symbolic of the fixed ideas of a specific community regarding its past, as captured at a particular point in time. History is complex and susceptible to refashioning in line with changing political aspirations. In a way, statues do tell us about the past, but that is not to say that we should accept what they tell us uncritically.
Conflicts over particular statues are the result of specific disagreements over an aspect of history. The sharp divides between those who would see Rhodes or a Confederate general as a villain and those who would see each as a hero are cases in point.
Disputes have been caused by people interpreting monuments in different ways. On the one hand are those who regard them as embodying some essential and imperishable historical certainty. On the other are observers who are able – and willing – to look beyond a particular statue to a more complex and contestable past reality. The latter are better poised to recognise that outmoded and divisive political values embodied in any monument belong in one place and one place alone: the past.
Those who are doing research on historical monuments – such as statues, busts and other installations – and on “dark heritage” are keen to understand the society that this heritage was part of when it was created. At the same time, there exists an increasingly rich library of research literature on how this divisive and painful heritage should be managed and used as a resource in today's society.
Cultural heritage management is as much about what should not be preserved as it is about what should be, and is being, preserved. Destruction, whether by conscious demolition or natural decline, is a legitimate part of the practice of cultural heritage management.
It is therefore not so odd that monuments that symbolize the racist past of the United State have been removed or are being removed throughout the American continent. Iconoclasm, as these actions express, however, it should be remembered is a political and, in some cases as with the Taliban, religious tool for demonstrating change and legitimising power.
This becoming a familiar practice of political change. Witness the Taliban's destruction of Buddha statues in Afghanistan, demolition of Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq after the US invasion, and destruction of Lenin and Stalin statues after the fall of the communist regime. However, tearing down a Buddha statue to demonstrate religious intolerance and demolition of a dictatorial statue to demonstrate democracy have very different contexts and legitimacy.
Destruction can heal or divide
Destruction and removal of monuments may be useful in times where a difficult past becomes too painful to relate to, such as statues erected by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. President Trump said that the planned removal of the Lee statue meant the removal of history. He also endorsed those who want to preserve the Lee statue because for him the decision to remove the statue is a means of erasing a common (which is divisive racial) heritage of Americans.
It is important to point out that history and memory are not the same. We do not need Hitler statues to remind us of the history of the Second World War. Removing a memorial does not remove history, but the act changes how it will be remembered.
The question is do we correct injustice by removing symbolic monuments that honour slave history? How much do such statues shelter discrimination and oppression inflicted upon non-whites? How important will the removal and destruction of monuments be important in healing of painful but barely remembered historical pasts in resolving much more hurtful political and racial divides like the windrush scandal in the here and now which are potent visible symbols of racial divides. These are difficult to answer questions which surely cannot be resolved by the pulling down symbols of culture by a minority of civic vandals whose minority voice does not represent that of the settled majority and by whose violent actions undermines the very principle of democracy they purport to uphold. There needs to be a fulsome debate on what needs to really occur for the country to move on not for a small cadre of revolutionary activists to decide what is in the real interests of the population.
Silence or neglect can also be ways to overcome a difficult past. For example, it may take place by changing the names of streets or buildings. Changing the name of a place with a new symbol is a way to communicate that the old meaning is no longer uniting the inhabitants of a particular location and that it belongs to an outdated set of historical values.
Thus, the question is does removing or destroying these monuments lead to healing and creating societal bonds. For the small minority it is obviously very cathartic but for the settled and silent majority it is a very visible symbol of a very worrying trend.
Some, like the Professor of American Legal History at Yale University John Fabian Witt believe that the violent tearing down of statues by an unelected and unrepresentative mob and an equivocal reaction by governmental authorities will lead to the eradication of many more historical monuments
When is it appropriate to save a monument?
Instead of destroying or silencing a monument associated with a painful past, these landmarks could also be used as tools for critical public debate about uses of the past today. Rewriting History in a deliberately provocative manner which ignores historical context altogether in favour of ideological privileging is extremely dangerous. Revisionist History can be as wrong as its orthodox colleague and used to highlight truths which are as misperceived as the dark truths it previously tried to hide.
What should be done depends on an assessment of the extent to which dialogue and constructive debate can be reached or if the attention drawn to the problem only further reinforces the conflict. Through dialogue and debate, this divisive history could be used in the long term as a means of reconciliation and tolerance.
The problem is that there is a danger of this not happening. The limits of what can be said in public conversations have been pushed towards the extremes. The debate has become harsh, irreconcilable, confrontational and violent.
The question about the removal or preservation of the Colton statue has created a debate around how we can reveal and analyse what is happening – the ideological and political uses of the monuments, the stories that are constructed and the definition of heritage and for whom it is important. For those involved in politics we must also be able to promote an ethical awareness and use our voices when heritage contributes to discrimination, hatred and violence.
Ribble Valley Conservative Association welcomes the emerging national debate about Historical monuments. Much of this public statuary was erected without such conversations, and without any public decision-making process. Across the country, communities face decisions about the disposition of monuments and memorials, and commemoration through naming of public spaces and buildings. These decisions require not only attention to historical facts, including the circumstances under which monuments were built and spaces named, but also an understanding of what history is and why it matters to public culture.
President Donald Trump was correct in that, “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” That is a good beginning, because to learn from history, one must first learn what actually happened in the past. Debates over removal of monuments should consider chronology and other evidence that provide context for why an individual or event has been commemorated. Knowledge of such facts enables debate that learns “from history.”
Equally important is awareness of what we mean by “history.” History comprises both facts and interpretations of those facts. To remove a monument, or to change the name of a building or street, is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history. A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.
Understanding the specific historical context of historical monuments in Britain is imperative to informed public debate. Historians should carry out careful and nuanced research to understand and explain this context. Drawing on their expertise enables us to assess the original intentions of those who erected the monuments, and how the monuments have functioned as symbols over time. The bulk of the monument building took place as I regaled earlier from the close of the 19th century into the second decade of the 20th.
To remove historical monuments is neither to “change” history nor “erase” it. What changes with such removals is what communities decide is worthy of civic honor. Historians and others will continue to disagree about the meanings and implications of events and the appropriate commemoration of those events. Ribble Valley Conservative Association encourages such discussions in publications, in venues of scholarship and teaching, and more broadly in public culture; historical scholarship itself is a conversation rooted in evidence and disciplinary standards. We urge communities faced with decisions about monuments to draw on the expertise of historians both for understanding the facts and chronology underlying such monuments and for deriving interpretive conclusions based on evidence.
To remove a monument, or to change the name of a school or street, is not to erase history.
We also encourage communities to remember that all memorials remain artifacts of their time and place. They should be preserved, just like any other historical document, whether in a museum or some other appropriate venue. Prior to removal they should be photographed and measured in their original contexts. These documents should accompany the memorials as part of the historical record.
There will be, and should be, debate about other people and events honored in our civic spaces. And precedents do matter. But so does historical specificity, and in this case the invocation of flawed analogies should not derail legitimate policy conversation.
Nearly all monuments to civic leaders erected in our great cities at the beginning of the nineteenth century were erected without anything resembling a democratic process. Regardless of their representation in the actual population in any given constituency, Black Voices had no opportunity to raise questions about the purposes or likely impact of the honor accorded to the builders of civic realms no matter how infamous, how flawed their character or lacking in true good. Ribble Valley Conservative Association recommends that it’s time to reconsider these decisions.