A museologist’s take on the defacing and unceremonious removal of problematic statues

The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. The ground is covered with Black Lives Matter placards. 7 June 2020. Image by Caitlin Hobbs (CC Attribution 3.0)

The recent damaging, defacing and removal of statues of problematic historical figures in the public space has received a lot of media coverage and has prompted a lot of reactions. While there seems to be a fairly strong approval for such gestures (or at least their outcome), some voices also express fears that these might lead to an erasure or negation of history or of its complexity. I think these often stem from misunderstandings about memorialisation processes, as well as the roles and dynamics of monuments in public space. So here are my two cents.

Is the removal of statues really an erasure of history and should we refrain from removing problematic monuments from public space for that reason?

No. Thinking about the unceremonious removal or the defacing of statues of problematic historical figures (such as slave traders) as an attempt to erase or negate history, or its complexity, is a profound misconception of the dynamics at play in monuments in the public space.* One which the demonstrators who mangled them, on the other hand, have perfectly understood.

Indeed, such gestures demonstrate the continuous impact of the past on the present, the resonance of historical episodes in people right here and now, and the — symbolic but very real — pain they still inflict. People who have demanded that some statues be taken down, and are sometimes taking the matter in their literal hands, do not want history erased: they want history, as well as the past and present sufferings it causes, acknowledged, and thus demand a correction in the kinds of individuals we honour with a statue in public space.

It also seems that a significant number (though not all) of these controversial statues are of figures linked to parts of history that are either not taught as part of a country’s official curriculum or not (or not much) from the perspective of their victims (the slave trade in the UK, Christopher Columbus in the US, etc.). Their defacing or removal is seldom a random attack on some historical figure, but a response to a failure, a refusal or slowness to address particular historical episodes, their narratives and memorialisation.

Further still, thinking of such gesture as an erasure of history fails to acknowledge them as part of history, as history being made, as a fait d’histoire. It is very much part of the history of these statues to be taken down, or moved, or altered, at a certain moment, by certain people, for certain reasons — just as it is part of their history to have been selected and cast for public display at a certain moment, by certain people, for certain reasons. It is part of the complexity of history and of its memorialisation, its discontents and its contestations. Which is why, for instance, decisions to preserve the statues unrestored often make perfect sense. History is never still, never achieved, never done and dusted, but continuously in the process of being written. It is constantly revisited, nuanced, complemented, complexified and seen from different perspectives. And remembrance is an equally complex, contentious and even at times volatile process.

The dynamics of monuments in public space

Monuments in public space are deceptively simple. Statues of historical figures or groups are monuments to them, honouring them as important and valued individuals for their positive contribution to society. That’s it. While their history can be (and often is) complex, their role once erected is pretty straightforward. And they are very much a one-way street: you erect these monuments solely to honour individuals or groups of people, never to acknowledge how awful they were. For example, after the end of the Second World War, towns and cities in Europe did not erect statues of Hitler with ‘never again’ plaques as a necessary reminder of the atrocities of the nazi regime: they built memorials dedicated to soldiers, leaders, and victims of the wars in order to honour and remember them.

Monuments can be built as a remembrance of positive or traumatic historical episodes. However, the people they are dedicated to and/or depict are considered to be fully on the right side of history. Which is why it is problematic in this day and age that, for instance, a slave trader whose actions destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people still receives such an honour (with a statue erected 174 years after his death and 88 years after the ban on slave trade, no less), while his victims do not.

Monuments tend to be a single-message medium and without much nuance. They are, unfortunately, not very effective at conveying history with any degree of precision. Most of the time, they hardly say anything about the people they honour or the historical episode warranting that honour (often because their audience is supposed to already know what is referred to: for instance the Second World War memorials need not a full historical account engraved next to the names of the fallen soldiers, and statues of now half-forgotten figures were usually renown at the time they were put on display).

What they can tell about history, though, is what (and thus who) we valued at the time when a monument was erected. For instance, statues of William Wallace (the 13th-century Scottish knight who fought against England) were erected in numbers in the 19th century, at a moment when he fitted a certain narrative of national pride and freedom. But when it comes to teaching history, as some teachers and lecturers have pointed out, statues in public space are hardly required, because books.

But shouldn’t we keep the statues of problematic figures are a reminder of history or as a form of atonement? What else can we do?

All of the above implies that it is at the very least legitimate, if not necessary, to periodically re-examine monuments and assess whether they convey the values that, as a society, we still espouse, and to correct course when necessary. A very restricted number of individuals or groups are honoured in such a way. It is thus fair to evaluate whether someone isn’t holding up space that would be better used by honouring another group/individual, either commemorating the same historical episode or a completely different one. To take a pretty straightforward example: shouldn’t we honour and remember the victims of slavery, rather than those who made a fortune from it? The representations of certain individuals, groups or classes of people is not neutral, and it can marginalise others.

Furthermore, the aforementioned dynamics of monuments are such that keeping them in an unaltered state — or sometimes with an additional plaque stating we no longer approve of, say, the genocide part of that person’s legacy — as a sort of reverse monument is not really plausible (despite the good intentions behind such initiatives). Again, this just isn’t how they work.

I don’t think that there is a single workable approach to all these monuments but here are a few different possibilities and potential solutions (among others) to address the issue, all of which with their pros and cons that do not make any automatically superior or right in every situation.

Let’s not forget that removing some statues does not equal destroying them or putting them out of public sight: they can sometimes be contextualised better somewhere else: in a museum for instance, where an artefact and its implications can be properly discussed and addressed. In a museum, an object does not have this automatic and irredeemable positive connotation, and the scenography itself can shape its perception by the audience. If the erasure of history is still a concern — for instance when it is not planned to commemorate the same historical episode from a different perspective — some remnants from the removed statue can be left on location, such as its plinth or a simple plaque explaining which statue was here, why and when it was erected and why and when it was subsequently removed.

There are also examples of statues being regrouped in a new environment, one better able to provide a nuanced understanding of why they were erected and why a recontextualisation was deemed necessary as society moved away from these icons. The Memento Park in Budapest provides an example of this. It should still be noted that often, the connotations and initial meaning of such statues can be difficult to entirely recontextualise when they are grouped together and they may remain ambivalent — which can be adequate or not, considering the historical episode at hand.

There is also the possibility to integrate the damaging or defacing of a statue as an integral part of it, thus acknowledging the contested history it represents. An example is the beheaded and bloodied statue of Empress Joséphine Bonaparte in Fort-de-France in Martinique (where she is from). Her statue has stayed in that defaced state since 1991, as a response to her alleged role in convincing Napoleon to reinstitute slavery in the French colonies.

Another option, possibly more radical and more efficient, is to add to the problematic statue, thus shifting, and often complexifying, its meaning. An example of this is Singapore’s celebration of its bicentennial [that is, the bicentennial of the establishment of a British crown colony in 1819] by adding statues to the one of Sir Stamford Raffles, recontextualising him as one of many figures who have contributed to shaping the history of Singapore since 1299, rather than its sole founder. Another ongoing example is the addition of female names to male names in the streets of Geneva, as a reminder of the role played by many women throughout history, few of which have streets or buildings named after them. This might make more sense in the context of a figure with a complicated rather than entirely abhorrent past but a confrontation between different perspectives, including opposed ones, on one historical episode might make sense and add relevant layers to the memorialisation of this moment in history.

But still, shouldn’t these decisions be made by the authorities/commissions/heritage bodies rather than be taken down or defaced by groups of citizens?

Ideally, these decisions should probably be made after consultations and careful considerations. But when this fails, or when citizens have a better understanding of the dynamics of public monuments than their governing bodies, I don’t think we get to complain about the way in which a statue was removed, not when we already agreed that it should be removed. (I’m not blaming authorities for being slow to act on this, as I understand the million other priorities they have to deal with.) I also think that, in some instances (though far from all of them), such gestures can put authorities in an easier position: it might be easier to decide not to put back a toppled statue of a slave trader than to make the decision to put it down in the first place and face accusations of erasing history.

In conclusion, it should be expected that monuments are places where opinions about history and its memorialisation are expressed — be it by occasionally dumping slave traders into the harbour in Bristol or the semi-regular repainting the Reformation wall in Geneva, or by more peaceful re-examinations and changes. And I think that their perceived function in society should include their role as places of contestation and renegotiation of history — not in order to negate or erase history, of course, but to contribute to a critical examination of a society’s values, and thus how it views and memorialises its own history.

*A caveat to this: destructions of public monuments can absolutely be perpetrated as attempts of negating or erasing history. I am writing here about figures such as slave traders, whose actions, as a society, we have decided no longer represent our values but whose existence no one denies or wants forgotten. This definition in itself is relatively simple and does not cover greyer areas or figures, which are, probably, a significant part of them. I cannot offer a decisive way of determining which individuals qualify as problematic enough to be removed and which ones are representative of the prejudices of their times while still having made a positive contribution to society in some capacity, and I am, furthermore, going to argue that this can be assessed very differently in different contexts (for instance, a statue of Gandhi on the campus of University of Ghana or in Parliament Square in London convey distinct meanings — and are representative of different issues linked to his memorialisation).

I am a curator, museologist and lecturer. My areas of research include contemporary and historical photography, and memorialisation processes.

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