Thursday, 7 June 2018

Between ‘Revere’ and ‘Remove’

Students on the DHeritage programme at University of Hertfordshire met for one of the regular programme of workshops on 14th May 2018. Convened by Professor Sarah Lloyd, the programme for the day focussed on the concepts of ‘Remembering and Forgetting’.  It brought together students and staff at UH involved in the DHeritage with several external speakers addressing issues of ‘memory’ within their research. The day covered issues of migration (Dr Eureka Henrich), slavery (Dr Jessica Moody) and the heritage of tomorrow (Dr Esther Breithoff) in addition to contributions from students dealing with these questions in professional practice.

By chance, the workshop coincided with one of a series of evening debates organised by Intelligence² and Historic England and held in Westminster Revere or Remove? The Battle Over Statues Heritage and History’. This discussion, led by historians and journalists, addressed the subject of memory, and how such a contested concept is dealt with publicly, particularly in the multicultural and multi voiced 21st century context.

Managed by Jonathan Freedland, Guardian columnist and author, the Panel comprised Peter Frankopan, Research Fellow at Worcester College, Oxford; writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch; author Tiffany Jenkins, Honorary Fellow at the University of Edinburgh; and David Olusoga, Historian and Broadcaster.  Each presented a position statement generated initially in response to the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign (, which has recently campaigned to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College in Oxford, and the decision to remove a statue of confederate general Robert E Lee from a park in Charlottesville, USA.  In many ways the responses and positions described were personal and reflected the experiences of the speakers.  Olusoga spoke with passion about the statue of merchant and slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, contrasting his own confidence in dealing with such memorials with that of others without his depth of historical knowledge.  He deconstructed the purpose of such statues and demonstrated both their erroneous portrayal of history and the changing nature of their meaning in contemporary society.  He urged the removing of Colston to a different site where his legacy could be debated in a context based on learning, not on the reverence that is hard to avoid when a viewer is physically required to ‘look up’ to a statue.  Jenkins took the position that relocation of statues simply relocated the issues. She noted the poor aesthetic quality of many such memorials and invoked the concepts of current relevance and the passing of time as determinants of the appropriate actions and responses to memorials.  As the contested statues are primarily in public places, her position was to leave responsibility with the public.  Where memorials are wanted they will be cared for, where no longer relevant they will be neglected and decline.  This approach reflects an emerging debate within the museum and heritage world regarding the potential for ‘managed decline’ of objects and places which are difficult to maintain for a range of reasons.  The need to forget as well as to remember was referenced although in a situation where the issues which some statues symbolise clearly continue to remain unaddressed, it seemed premature to move directly from ‘revere’ to ‘remove’ without further consideration.

All of the panellists at some point found themselves at risk of entanglement with the intricacies of this debate.  Hirsch urged the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes but also described the importance of monuments as part of the relationship of the present with the past.  Frankopan offered the view that the ‘winds of history’ mean that all statues will eventually fall, and that indeed, it is their ultimate function.  All felt that there should be some critique of each circumstance and a greater understanding of the history that each monument represents.  While an obvious response to the situation under discussion, this led inevitably to a discussion of the limitations of history teaching and public knowledge and to the fact that many statues are symbolic reductions of complex situations.  Their original meanings may have been lost and may be of limited relevance for the majority of those who view them today.  While some statues have little meaning at any one time, some have disproportionality significant meaning, becoming symbols of contemporary concerns. Olusoga pointed out that the Bristol statue of Colston was erected two hundred years after his death.  In this situation is the statue more realistically considered as something of the 19th rather than the 17th or 18th century?  Jenkins in particular cautioned about the dangers of being ‘enslaved to the past’.  If Bristol was provided with a statue of Colston in the 1890’s as part of a battle for power within the city’s merchant class, then it seemed entirely possible by the end of the debate that by removing it, Bristol could be signifying a sense of itself for the future, not seeking to remove an unpleasant figure and an unpalatable sense of its past.

Edward Colston, Bristol ©Barbara Wood

Reflecting on the workshop and the evening debate it seems as if the issues of both were less concerned with the meaning of statues and memorials at the time of erection and more about their function in establishing new identities for places and for society for the future.  A contributor from the audience, part of a campaign group aiming to remove the Colston statue spoke about the fundraising to establish a memorial to the 32000 people who died because of Colston’s’ activities and a museum of slavery in Bristol.  Meaning changes and develops even within living memory. Centuries after they were established, many of the remains under discussion seem inconsequential in themselves. It was their currency in the present that was important. It is surely our opportunity and responsibility to erect statues and memorials to what is important today, if - as Frankopan pointed out - anybody is interested enough to do that. 

Barbara Wood
Doctoral Candidate (DHeritage Programme)

DeSilvey, C. (2017) Curated Decay Heritage Beyond Saving. University of Minnesota Press.

Jenkins, T. (2016) Keeping their marbles How the treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there. Oxford University Press. 

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