Panel discussion on memorials and names

Last week I had the privilege of being part of a panel discussion, held at the National Library in collaboration with Manatū Taonga/Ministry for Culture and Heritage. The topic was ‘Memorials, names and ethical remembering’.

The discussion was chaired by Professor Joanna Kidman from Victoria University of Wellington, co-lead investigator for a major project on the memory of the New Zealand Wars. My fellow panelists were writer, historian and consultant Morrie Love, and Nicky Karu from the Iwi Partnerships team at Wellington City Council.

A recording of the individual talks and the panel discussion is now available online here. Thanks to the organisers and the other panelists for a stimulating discussion!

More monuments

The uncontroversial (so far) statue of Peter Fraser, Wellington, with mask, May 2020

I suppose this must be what epidemiologists experienced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic: suddenly, the thing you’ve been writing and thinking about for years is all over the news.

It’s been slightly surreal over the past week or so to see the amount of coverage of controversy over statues, memorials and place names, both here in Aotearoa New Zealand and overseas. Examples of problematic memorials and names I’ve followed and written about in the past (including on another blog that covered a period spent living in Scotland) are now mentioned in daily news bulletins and opinion pieces: the Edward Colston statue in Bristol; the Robert Milligan statue in London; the Melville monument in Edinburgh; the Boulcott’s Farm memorial in Lower Hutt; the name of the New Zealand town of Picton; and streets named after imperialists and slave-traders.

As with Covid-19, there has been much thoughtful commentary on the issues raised by controversies over monuments and place names; thankfully, I’ve seen fewer ill-informed reckons about these controversies than about the pandemic (though the reckons are certainly out there).

The latest round of debate about memorialisation has occurred in response to the police killing of George Floyd in the US city of Minneapolis. But these debates are not new. The current memorial controversies overseas are a continuation of campaigns that began with the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter movements in 2015, but whose roots go back further. In Aotearoa, Māori and their tauiwi allies have raised concerns about memorials since at least the 1970s, and there was a wave of attacks on memorials here in the 1990s.

Still, the current moment, in which attacks on statues are fueled by red-hot outrage at racism and police brutality, may not provide the best environment in which to consider how to deal with contentious monuments. In a series of earlier posts (here, here, here and here) I wrote about a range of strategies for responding to such monuments, and concluded there is no one-size-fits-all solution. There can also be value in the debate itself, which can provide an opportunity for communities to learn about history and to better understand different perspectives on the past.

So I agree with Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon that it would be helpful at this point to pause and allow time for community dialogue, rather than rushing into decisions about monuments and names. I can also see value in the Māori Party’s call for an inquiry into colonial monuments and names. (The Waitangi Tribunal is due to look at monuments as part of a kaupapa inquiry on identity and culture, but that could be years away and would provide limited opportunities for public dialogue.)

At the same time, while a national inquiry could establish principles for decision-making and perhaps deal with some high-profile cases, it should not take the place of ongoing discussion at the local level, as communities work through how best to respond to monuments and names in their areas. In my own city of Lower Hutt, for example, the council plans to provide some balance to the one-sided recognition of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm through new street names commemorating the pā of Māori expelled from the Hutt following that battle.

There’s another reason why a longer-term approach to monuments and place names is better than quick fixes. As I’ve written before, I believe there is value in symbolic change, but there is also a danger that it can be tokenistic or can distract from the need for substantive, structural change. Working towards equality of symbolic representation is important, but surely not as urgent as addressing inequalities in the justice system, in employment, in health care, and so on. We can work on more than one thing at once, but I’d suggest we can also allow work on memorialisation to follow a longer track.

While some issues have greater urgency than others, some memorialisation is also surely more offensive than others, and therefore more in need of correction. When it comes to the individuals who are commemorated, there is a difference between (for example) someone who actively enslaved other human beings and someone who expressed racist sentiments. Yes, racist speech contributes to the perpetuation of racist structures, as does silence about racial oppression. But some are more culpable than others, and few reputations could withstand close scrutiny of everything a person wrote or said.

Even Mahatma Gandhi, sometimes portrayed as the paradigm of unimpeachable morality, has come under fire for anti-African racism and for attitudes that were patronising, at best, towards India’s Dalit communities. There have been calls for statues of Gandhi to come down, despite his leading role in resistance to British imperialism. (From a different angle, Rachel Buchanan has asked why there is a statue of Gandhi at Wellington railway station while Māori history is largely absent from public space.)

A large part of the problem with statues and memorials to individuals is that individual human beings, with all their flaws, are set up as representatives of a community. As we seek to redress symbolic imbalances, we could think about moving away from the focus on commemorating individuals towards memorials that recognise previously marginalised and under-represented groups of people.

Where, for example, are New Zealand’s memorials or public artworks for the kinds of workers we relied on to keep doing their jobs during the Covid-19 restrictions: the supermarket staff, the aged-care workers, the cleaners, the truck and bus drivers, and others? Usually low-paid, often Māori, Pacific or Asian New Zealanders, these workers deserve better pay and conditions above all. But perhaps there is also room for creative recognition in public space of their contributions, now and in past generations, to our society? As we consider the fate of the stone and bronze men standing on pedestals, we should also think about how we can recognise the ordinary people who have so long stood in their shadows, but without whom our society could not function.

Vote 1 my Mum

Vote 1 My MumI made my political debut early – not that I had any choice in the matter.

In 1970, my mother ran for council in Werribee, a town just west of Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria, where I spent the first eight years of my life.  My parents had arrived in Werribee in 1966. After spending a couple of years as a teacher-librarian at Werribee High School (where she worked with Helen Garner, later to achieve fame as an author), Mum started a Master’s degree in law. She focused on the law relating to subdivision of land and how it was applied in Werribee. Werribee had been a country town but was increasingly coming into Melbourne’s orbit, and rural land was being converted to urban uses. Mum was concerned that this was happening in an unplanned way, with the risk of losing some of Werribee’s character and failing to provide adequate services for the new communities that were created. The Werribee Shire Council seemed to her to be dominated by men for whom ‘development’ meant converting rural to urban land as fast as possible.

When a sitting councillor retired, Mum decided (after some hesitation) to contest the vacant seat. She was up against Frank Purcell, a popular local solicitor. Purcell was arguably the establishment candidate, but the differences between him and Mum don’t seem to have been ideological in nature. Purcell was a member of the right-of-centre Liberal Party, but would later describe himself as being on the left wing of that party. In the same year that he ran for council, Purcell had been one of the lawyers for the claimants in the ground-breaking (though unsuccessful) land rights case brought by the Aboriginal people of Yirrkala. He would go on to be involved in other campaigns for Indigenous rights, a cause Mum also strongly supported.

Mum recalls that there’d been little campaigning in previous Werribee elections, with councillors getting in on name recognition or running unopposed. She didn’t have that luxury, so she and her campaign team needed to come up with ideas to attract publicity. And this is where I come in. Mum and a friend made a little smock out of an old sheet for me to wear, with the words ‘Vote [1] My Mum’ on one side and ‘Vote [1] Gwen Morris’ on the other. The Mail newspaper agreed to take photos of Mum out doing the shopping with me wearing the smock.

The Mail photographer was also the photographer for the Melbourne Age. And so it was that Mum and I ended up on the front pages of both the Mail and the Age.

Vote 1 My Mum (4)
Age, 15 August 1970

The Mail described it as ‘the best election gimmick of all time’, while the Age called me ‘a great vote-catcher’.

This was a time of changing roles for Australian women, who were increasingly having their own careers but were still expected to perform their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Another article in the Mail, noting that Mum was making a bid to become Werribee’s first female councillor, called her ‘a young housewife’ while also reporting that she had been in paid work for several years and was now studying for her Master’s. In the climate of the times, my brief involvement in the campaign was attention-grabbing, but also a useful reminder to voters that Mum was not only a lawyer with expertise in town planning but also a young mother.

Mum lost the election, though she received a very respectable 44% of the votes, so she was unable either to become a pioneer of female representation on the council or to help shape the future development of Werribee. The first woman was elected to a local council in Victoria in 1920, 50 years before Mum’s attempt (and a year after South Australia led the way). A century later, things haven’t progressed as far as they should have: women still make up only around 38% of Victorian councillors, and 35% in Australia nationwide. New Zealand is doing somewhat better: it elected the first female mayor in the British Empire, Elizabeth Yates of Onehunga, in 1893, and women now make up 42% of councillors here.

As for Werribee, it has changed enormously since 1970 but has retained its own identity despite the threat of being swallowed up by Melbourne. I still remember my outrage, after we moved from Werribee to Canberra, when I told a teacher (himself a Melburnian) that I came from a country town and he replied scornfully that Werribee was just a suburb of Melbourne. Werribee’s population has continued to grow and to become more diverse, as earlier non-British migrants from Italy, Greece and Macedonia have been joined by migrants from many parts of the world. There is now a significant Māori and Pacific Islander population in Werribee, and even a local branch of the Māori Wardens.

Werribee’s challenge today may be less losing its identity than having an unwelcome identity foisted upon it. If you’ve seen the 2006 Australian mockumentary ‘Kenny’, about a plumber who works for a portaloo company, you might have caught one or two passing references to Werribee. That’s because Werribee is home to a major sewage treatment plant, which is the main thing many people know about it and makes it the butt (no pun intended) of many jokes. Werribee and its people also face class snobbery and urban condescension from their big-city neighbours. Werribee is not alone in this respect: Londoners look down on neighbouring Essex, and Wellingtonians on Lower Hutt (where I now live), in a somewhat similar way.

As Werribee resident Fatima Measham wrote in a lovely essay a few years ago, ‘Melbourne wouldn’t be what it is now if it weren’t for Werribee’. The establishment of what was then known as the Werribee Sewage Farm allowed Melbourne to outsource its waste treatment and escape its former nickname of ‘Marvellous Smelbourne’. Werribee market gardens have also long supplied Melbourne with produce.

The sewage works are also the site of important wetlands, home to large colonies of native birds, and there are other areas of natural beauty in and around the town. Measham writes:

there are pockets of deep magic that belie the perception of blandness and seediness that encumber the place I call home.

There is, for instance, a creek behind our house that winds through several estates. It flows past 300-year-old river red gums, through clefts in the plains, curving gently around small marshy coves. If you knew how to look, you would find traces of the Marpeang people who used to live on and with this land.

Almost 50 years earlier, Mum was entranced by similar aspects of Werribee’s landscape: ‘I really liked the river red gums that grew along the Werribee River and in hollows on the plains. You knew the river was there but it was kind of like a hidden secret.’

Since my family left there, Werribee has also explored its history more fully. This includes not only its colonial heritage (such as Werribee Park, home to a mansion once owned by the local equivalent of landed gentry, the Chirnside family) but also, belatedly, its Indigenous heritage. As the first President of the Werribee Historical Society in 1970, Mum played a part in this process.

Mum never ran for office again, but her experiences in Werribee helped shape her thinking about the elements that make up successful communities. And her thinking, in turn, has shaped me, contributing to my interest in place and history. Happy Mother’s Day, Mum!


Margaret Campbell, From There to Here: Excerpts from the First Person Accounts of Family Migration Werribee 1840s-2000s Recorded for a Centenary of Federation Community Grant Project, Werribee, Werribee Community Centre, 2005 (particularly the accounts of Gwen Morris and Frank Purcell).

Fatimah Measham, ‘No Shit’, Meanjin, vol. 73, no., 2, 2014, available online here.


The historical bear hunt continues

Theodore Roosevelt shares a Thanksgiving toast with a collection of wild animals. Caption: ‘THE BEAR (with deep feeling) — Here’s hoping that when next we meet we see you first.’ J.S. Pughe, ‘A Thanksgiving Truce’, Puck, 22 November 1905. LC-DIG-ppmsca-26010, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

My exploration of the early history of the teddy bear in New Zealand is continued from this earlier post.

From a twenty-first century perspective, the policies of United States President Theodore Roosevelt (who disliked the widespread use of ‘Teddy’ as his nickname) can seem a strange mixture of the admirable and the appalling. He was a pioneering conservationist, and supported an activist state that intervened to curb the power of big business and to protect consumers and workers. At the same time, he was a proponent of the United States’s imperial expansion in the 1890s and fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898. As President, he promoted an assertive foreign policy in which diplomacy was backed by military power. He was also a eugenicist who believed (like many white people of his age) in the superiority of white people from Northern Europe.

The story of Roosevelt refusing to shoot the bear, that led to the creation of the teddy bear, nicely illustrates some of the complexities of Roosevelt’s public persona. On the one hand, he was the keen big-game hunter and hyper-masculine man of action. On the other, he was the protector of wild places, animals and plants, and supporter of the underdog (or, in this case, the under-bear). The story, in which Roosevelt is armed but chooses not to use his weapons, also aligned well with his foreign policy strategy of negotiation underpinned by the threat of military might: the strategy he famously described as ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’.

Roosevelt’s best-known link to New Zealand, perhaps, is his 1905 gift of wapiti deer to this country (wapiti remain at large in Fiordland in the South Island). However, one of Roosevelt’s most notable instances of ‘big stick’ diplomacy also involved New Zealand. In August 1908, sixteen United States battleships nicknamed the ‘Great White Fleet’ arrived in New Zealand, as part of a global tour aimed at demonstrating America’s naval strength. Roosevelt, a long-time supporter of naval power, dispatched the fleet at a time when Japan had recently demonstrated its naval prowess in the Russo-Japanese War. (Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his role in negotiating a peace treaty between Japan and Russia.)

Aucklanders turned out in large numbers to welcome the ‘Great White Fleet’ to New Zealand. New Zealand Graphic, 12 August 1908, p. 35. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19080812-35-1.

The fleet’s visit to Auckland was a major event, lasting almost a week. Large crowds turned out to welcome the visitors, as did most Members of Parliament, who travelled up from Wellington for the occasion. The visit was also extensively reported in the newspapers. Although New Zealand was still strongly British in its political and cultural orientation, the Americans were generally welcomed as ‘cousins’ who belonged to the same race as British New Zealanders. The nickname of the ‘Great White Fleet’ ostensibly referred to the ships’ white-painted hulls, but there was also a clear racial dimension to the name. There was much talk during the visit of Anglo-Saxon racial solidarity in the face of potential threats from ‘Asiatic’ powers.

Māori occupied a somewhat ambiguous position in the midst of this emphasis on whiteness during the visit. Theodore Roosevelt himself had referred to Māori in his multi-volume work The Winning of the West, writing that war with ‘savage’ peoples was brutal and inhuman but also necessary:

American and Indian, Boer and Zulu, Cossack and Tartar, New Zealander and Maori — in each case the victor, horrible though many of his deeds are, has laid the foundations for the future greatness of a mighty people.

By 1908, such warfare was considered safely in the past by the New Zealand and United States Governments. The Māori King Mahuta was among those who met Rear-Admiral Sperry, the fleet commander. Sperry referred to his earlier visit to New Zealand in 1869 (when the New Zealand Wars were still being fought) and said he was ‘right glad that such good feeling’ now existed between Māori and Pākehā.

Before and during the fleet’s visit to New Zealand, there was much discussion about the relative positions of Māori, Native Americans and African-Americans. The New Zealand Herald quoted an American naval officer, who described Māori as:

the finest aboriginal race we have yet come across. They are quick and intelligent, and have a history which everyone should admire. We, at any rate, admire them, and to demonstrate this I can quote no better instance than the fact that many of our officers last night danced with them — a thing we would never do with the negroes.

There were, in fact, some African-Americans serving in the US Navy at this time (including in the ‘Great White Fleet’), but only in subordinate positions and with segregated eating and sleeping arrangements.

If black people were not welcome among the white American sailors, however, black bears were a different matter. The American battleships had bears on board as mascots, and these attracted great interest. The New Zealand Herald reported that the bears were:

evidently feeling the effects of too much hospitality. They have had a surfeit of peanuts, lollies, and other trifles during their stay in Auckland, and are now, most of them, suffering from indigestion…

The continuing association of bears with Roosevelt was apparent from the reply of an American sailor when asked by a teenage girl if Roosevelt was in command of the ships in battle: ‘If he ain’t making a speech or hunting wild ba-ars, he is, miss.’ The bear on the USS Minnesota was a black cub called Teddy, who was seen ‘strutting up and down the deck wearing a marine’s hat, a miniature officer’s belt, and a sword.’ He slept in a box, wrapped in blankets, and was fed mostly on malted milk.

Annotation 2020-04-12 182631
Caption: ‘Feeding one of the numerous Teddy bears presented to the fleet’. New Zealand Graphic, 12 August 1908, p. 40. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-19080812-40-1.

Bears occupy a curious position in the imagination of European and European-derived cultures. On the one hand, they are powerful and dangerous wild beasts, and are to be feared. On the other, they are imagined as cute, furry and cuddly creatures. Their ability to stand on their hind legs makes them all the more terrifying and yet also easier to anthropomorphise. Taming or domesticating bears is a way of reconciling these contradictions. In zoos, or in circuses or other types of performance, bears can present an enjoyable spectacle while still retaining a slight edge of menace. In popular culture, bears have often been metaphorically declawed, becoming benign and charming: whether characters in children’s stories such as Winnie-the-Pooh or Paddington, cartoon bears like Yogi, the Three Bears of the Goldilocks fairy tale (though these bears were more threatening in earlier versions of the tale), or dancing bears in whimsical songs (far removed from the cruel reality of bears that are taught to ‘dance’).

The teddy bear is the ultimate domesticated bear: so far removed from its animal origins that it’s difficult to even recognise it as a bear. The teddy bear hunts taking place during the COVID-19 lockdown, however, draw their inspiration from the children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1989) by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, in which (despite the characters’ repeated self-reassurance that ‘we’re not scared’) the bear is actually something to be feared. The COVID-19 virus, which is believed to have originated with wild animals, shows the limits of our efforts to tame and domesticate the natural world.

There are no teddy bears in my household, but I have put my cherished childhood companion, Puppy, in the window. There was no social distancing between me and Puppy when I was growing up: he has been hugged to within an inch of his life, and is now a creature of patches and bandages, like some sort of lovable A&E pirate.

20200329_143736How much is that doggy in the window? Priceless.

References (for this and the previous post)

Dominion, 30 September 1907, p. 3; 3 January 1908, p. 3.

Lyttelton Times, 9 November 1907, p. 8.

Poverty Bay Herald, 21 December 1907, p. 2 (supplement).

New Zealand Truth, 13 March 1909, p. 6; 20 March 1909, p. 4.

New Zealand Herald, 11 August 1908, p. 10; 15 August 1908, p. 5.

Theodore Roosevelt, The Winning of the West, vol. 3, New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894, p. 45.

Going on a (historical) bear hunt

Teddy Bear, circa 1907, maker unknown. Gift of Mrs R Sadler, 1988. CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (GH003585/1)

New Zealand is in the third week of COVID-19 lockdown. We may be (temporarily) short of flour and other grocery items, but one thing we are not short of is bears. In houses all around the country, there are teddy bears in windows, allowing children to take part in a bear hunt while out walking around their neighbourhoods with their families.

Teddy bears are now such a well-established part of many people’s childhoods, and such a source of comfort and nostalgia, that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist. Yet they only date to the early twentieth century, and it’s fascinating to look back to the period when they were still a novelty to New Zealanders.

Teddy bears get their name from an incident involving United States President Theodore Roosevelt, a keen hunter. In 1902 Roosevelt was on a hunting expedition in Mississippi and, unlike the rest of his party, he had failed to kill any game. His assistants managed to chase down and corner a black bear, tying it to a tree and suggesting that Roosevelt shoot it, but Roosevelt considered this unsporting and refused to do so. Or so the story goes. The story was publicised in the media, and became the subject of a famous cartoon by Washington Post cartoonist Clifford Berryman.

Washington Post, 16 November 1902, LC-USZ62-34274, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

This cartoon (and especially a more developed version which can be viewed here) was somewhat misleading in depicting a relatively small and cute bear being held at the end of a rope by an apparently white man. In fact, the bear was full sized and had been captured by Holt Collier, who was African-American, a former enslaved man and soldier and a famous bear hunter.

The cartoon inspired Brooklyn candy store owner Morris Michtom to create a stuffed bear toy. He received Roosevelt’s permission to call it ‘Teddy’s bear’, and in 1903 he established the Ideal Toy Company to manufacture the bears. In the same year, and apparently independently, the Steiff company in Germany also began selling its famous stuffed bears.

It took a few years for teddy bears to become known in New Zealand. In 1907, Wellington’s Dominion newspaper could still ask: ‘How many people in New Zealand know what the strange creature called a Teddy bear is? Probably not more than half a dozen’. At that stage the bear was still being reported as an American novelty, and it didn’t meet with immediate and universal approval.

An editorial in the Lyttelton Times saw ‘the vogue of the “Teddy bear” in America’ as another sign that the early twentieth century was an age of frivolity: ‘The toy beast appeals to children because it has a warm, soft coat, and to adults because it has a touch of the grotesque in its composition, but its importance is perhaps not fully appreciated outside America.’ It quoted another newspaper which asked ‘why fashionable women [in America] drive round nursing Teddy bears while their own children are being nursed by negro women.’

The ‘Woman’s World’ column in the Dominion in January 1908 noted that the American fashion for Teddy bears had been criticised for failing to develop the maternal instinct in girls, in contrast to dolls. However, ‘it has yet to be proved that the little girl who dislikes dolls necessarily dislikes babies’. There was more, ‘Woman’s World’ thought, to the argument ‘that ugly fantastic toys should not be given to children’ and that ‘a plain straightforward animal’ would give more pleasure.

While some early coverage of teddy bears associated them particularly with girls and women, the teddy bear quickly became a toy equally beloved by girls and boys. Boy with teddy bear on steps, 26 November 1933, Wellington, by Leslie Adkin. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (A.006294)

By December 1907, teddy bears were already said to be the dominant Christmas toy in London, and they were appearing in New Zealand too. The DSC department store’s Christmas advertisement advised Aucklanders to:

Annotation 2020-04-08 171413
Auckland Star, 13 December 1907, p. 7

In 1907 the American composer John Walter Bratton composed the song ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ (you can see the original sheet music here), although the now-famous lyrics were not written until 1932. By December 1908 this ‘latest musical craze’ had made its way to New Zealand.

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Press (Christchurch), 21 December 1908, p. 1

Reports in 1909 that the Teddy bear craze was passing in America proved premature, but the New Zealand Truth complained that surplus stocks were being offloaded in New Zealand, where ‘an effort is being made to boom the farcical fad.’ Truth was quite vitriolic about the ‘inane “Teddy bear” toy’ which ‘comes from the land of putrid canned meat’.

Truth‘s anti-Americanism was not necessarily typical of New Zealand attitudes, however. The popularity of the teddy bear can be seen as symptomatic of a period when America was rising as a world power and the influence of its popular culture was increasing. Nothing better illustrated the growing political and cultural authority of the United States in New Zealand than the warm reception for the ‘Great White Fleet’ in 1908. Which brings us back to Teddy Roosevelt…

(To be continued)

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 4: multiplication

In the conclusion to this series of posts adapted from a paper for the 2019 New Zealand Art Crime Symposium, I discuss diversification of the symbolic landscape, or multiplication.

x x x x Multiplication x x x x

Debates over monuments tend to focus on individual statues or memorials, but this focus misses a larger picture. Taken together, memorials and other symbols in public space (such as names of streets and buildings) convey messages about collective identity, even if they aren’t noticed consciously. They often reflect power imbalances, with some groups having a more prominent place than others in how a community is imagined. In New Zealand and other former British settler colonies, statues in public places are overwhelmingly of straight, white, wealthy men.[1] Memorials disproportionately represent history as seen through the eyes of such men. This is changing, but not fast enough.

Instead of focusing on the possible removal of existing monuments, we could think about diversifying the symbolic landscape. The strategy of ‘multiplication’ involves creating new works of public art that tell different stories and represent different historical experiences from those represented by older memorials. Of course, public art has a cost, one which ratepayers, taxpayers or private sponsors may be reluctant to bear. However, if done well, new commemorative artworks can not only make public spaces more representative of the community but also make those spaces more attractive and interesting for residents and visitors.

Below are some Canadian examples of diversification of memorials (Algonquin chief Tessouat, Gatineau, Quebec; ‘Famous Five’ women’s rights activists, Winnipeg, Manitoba; Daurene Lewis, first black female mayor in Canada, Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia).

One objection to this approach is that traditional memorials, and particularly statues, have had their day.[2] But even if we accept this view, new commemorative works need not be bronze or stone monuments. They can take new forms that may be playful, provocative, performative, interactive, educational or ephemeral.[3]

Overseas, some of the most interesting challenges to the current symbolic landscape have come from artists whose work is often temporary and responds directly to existing memorials, straddling my categories of ‘addition’ and ‘multiplication’. The Monument Lab project in Philadelphia, USA, is an example of such counter-monuments or anti-monuments. Monument Lab artworks erected in 2017 included Karyn Olivier’s ‘The Battle is Joined’, which encased a Revolutionary War memorial in a mirrored acrylic structure, and ‘All Power to All People’ by Hank Willis Thomas, a giant Afro comb with a clenched fist on the handle, which was placed near a statue of a controversial former Philadelphia mayor.

There is still room, too, for more lasting artworks commemorating historical experiences that have previously been absent from public space. These may depart from memorial traditions largely inherited from nineteenth-century Europe. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we are now seeing more commemorative projects initiated by Māori and employing Māori iconography, particularly carved wooden pou.

2017-12-30 04.26.32
Te Tarata memorial, near Ōpōtiki
Waerenga a Hika memorial, Gisborne

One possible concern about the multiplication strategy is that it could challenge some forms of under-representation while perpetuating others. For example, creating new memorials to address the dominance of Pākehā history in public space might still reinforce the tradition of focusing on ‘great men’.

Another potential problem is that creating new memorials might fail to effectively challenge dominant views of history. Instead, it could leave different groups living in parallel historical universes, with incompatible or even competing forms of public memory represented by multiple memorials.[4] We might call this the ‘tomayto/tomahto’ scenario, in which we call off the whole messy business of trying to understand each other’s perspectives on history, or of looking for common ground on which to build a shared future.

= = = = Equal to | Not equal to ≠ ≠ ≠ ≠

There’s also an argument that symbolic recognition through the creation of new monuments is mere tokenism, a distraction from calls for genuine redistribution of wealth and power. A similar argument can be made in relation to calls for the removal of existing monuments: that focusing on the symbolic diverts attention from real, material problems.[5] It’s easier to tear down a monument than to dismantle structural racism; simpler to build new memorials than to construct a fairer society.

As someone who studies symbols and memorials, I admit to being troubled by this argument. I believe that symbols have power, that they play a role in shaping our understanding of the world, and therefore that changing symbols can play some part in building a more equal world. I also think that debates about memorials can provide opportunities to rethink and challenge dominant views of history, and make room for other perspectives. But I can’t help wondering whether, by focusing on what to do with tired old statues of dead white men, we invest them with too much power. Perhaps, sometimes, the best thing we can do is to ignore them, to leave them cloaked in invisibility, their heads a target for pigeons, the foundations on which they stand a convenient platform on which to sit and eat our lunches.

It should be clear by now that I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all approach to solving the problem of contentious memorials. All approaches have their advantages and drawbacks – or, perhaps I should say, their pluses and minuses. The status quo can entrench division, leaving some parts of the community feeling aggrieved and excluded by existing monuments. Subtraction, or removal, may be appropriate for monuments that are particularly objectionable, but risks sanitising the past rather than engaging with it. Addition, providing new information or interpretation, can contextualise or challenge memorials. But the reinterpretation can itself be subject to ongoing debate and revision, and may be inadequate to challenge a monument’s original message. Finally, multiplication can help to diversify the symbolic landscape, but can have a significant financial cost. In some cases it could also entrench, rather than bridge, division over how we view the past.

Each debate about historical monuments has to be considered in its own context and based on its own characteristics. Each one is, to remain with the language of mathematics, a unique equation with a particular set of variables. But my talk of mathematics may be misleading, because we can’t reduce the messiness and contradictions of history and human relationships to a mathematical formula. These debates are about history and heritage, but also about power, prejudice and perspective.

I don’t have the answers, but I’ve tried to provide a framework for thinking about whether rogues must fall, and to offer some alternatives to iconoclasm that may get us closer to balancing the equation.

[1] See, for example, the discussion of New Zealand statues in Megan Whelan, ‘Mrs Sheppard and Mr Seddon’, in Bronwyn Labrum (ed.), Women Now: The Legacy of Female Suffrage, Wellington, Te Papa Press, 2018, pp. 139-152. Strictly speaking, I should qualify ‘straight’ by saying the statues are of men who were apparently straight in terms of their public personas, regardless of the realities of their private lives. The point remains, however, that there are few memorials to people who openly departed from prevailing social norms of gender and sexuality.

[2] See, for example, Jonathan Jones, ‘Feminism Doesn’t Need More Female Statues – it Needs Political Action’, Guardian, 27 March 2017,

[3] See, for example, Sue-Anne Ware, ‘Anti-Memorials and the Art of Forgetting: Critical Reflections on a Memorial Design Practice’, Public History Review, vol. 15, 2008, pp. 61-76; Catherine De Lorenzo and Vivien Chow, ‘Contained Memories or Catalysts? Some Aboriginal Memorials in Australia’, Memory Connection, vol. 1, no. 1, 2011, pp. 452-74; Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2010, pp. 356-76.

[4] This danger has been identified in the contemporary South of the United States: David Goldfield, Still Fighting the Civil War: The American South and Southern History, Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2002, p. 305; Dell Upton, What Can and Can’t be Said: Race, Uplift and Monument Building in the Contemporary South, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2015.

[5] Anne C. Bailey, ‘Tearing Down Confederate Statues Leaves Structural Racism Intact’, The Conversation, 24 August 2018,

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 3: addition

Having considered the capacity of monuments to create division, and the strategy of subtraction (or removal), in this post I turn to addition.

+ + + + Addition + + + +

Moving a memorial to a museum can be one way of reinterpreting and recontextualising it, but something similar can also be done while the memorial remains in place. This is the strategy I’ll call ‘addition’: adding to the existing text and imagery to incorporate changed perspectives or new historical scholarship.

Graffiti and other types of vandalism (such as painting a statue, placing objects on its head, or lopping off body parts) can be unofficial forms of addition. Although it’s a kind of iconoclasm aimed at subverting a monument rhetorically, and therefore somewhat akin to efforts to remove the monument physically, graffiti is also a commentary on the messages the monument conveys.

March 2010 222
Portion of the Abel Tasman memorial, Golden Bay, with amendment, 2010

In a speech in 2018, following the painting of anti-racist slogans on a statue of Captain Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park, public historian Lisa Murray asked the provocative question: should the graffiti have been removed, or should they be considered to form part of the changing meaning of the statue?[1] Leaving graffiti in place, however, could simply encourage tit-for-tat vandalism. It’s worth remembering that white supremacists also deface monuments, and that there have been attacks on Māori carvings in New Zealand and on indigenous memorials in Australia.

A more official form of addition is the placing of a new plaque or inscription on an existing memorial. In 1994, for example, a new plaque was added to the so-called ‘Explorers’ Monument’ in Fremantle, Western Australia, acknowledging that the original plaque portrayed frontier violence from a white settler viewpoint.[2]

‘Explorers’ monument’, Fremantle, Western Australia


An alternative to a new plaque on the memorial itself is to place information boards nearby, providing additional information and perspectives on the history of the memorial and of the person or event it commemorates. Digital technologies also allow us to add new layers of interpretation without destroying the old ones: websites and apps make it easy to ensure information about memorials and the events they commemorate is accessible and up to date.[3]

An issue with the additive approach to contentious monuments is that any new interpretation will itself be only one point of view. Like the original memorial, it will be a product of its time, and can be subject to debate and revision. New Zealand journalist Tim Watkin, though supportive of historical re-evalution, asks, ‘where does it stop? Does each generation add a plaque as our views of history twist and turn?’[4] Even if a new plaque itself becomes outdated in time, however, it may be enough to signal that there’s more than one perspective on history. And information boards or digital interpretation can be replaced and updated more easily than plaques on the memorial itself.

A more significant challenge can be reaching consensus about the wording of any new plaque or sign. Debates about proposed new wording can sometimes drag on for years, and may simply provide a new focus for disagreements about history and public memory.[5]

Another concern is that new information and interpretation may be insufficient to overcome the impact of the original memorial. This is particularly true if the monument is a dominating presence in the landscape and if its design and symbolism convey a powerful message (perhaps in conjunction with other, similar memorials). In such cases, a new plaque or sign that requires viewers to come close to the memorial and take the time to read the additional information may be inadequate.

[1] Andrew Taylor, ‘Historian Questions Whether Graffiti Should Have Been Left on Captain Cook Statue’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 April 2018, A video of Lisa Murray’s Jim Kerr Address, ‘Monuments and Memories: Reassessing Colonial Imperialism’, 18 April 2018, can be seen at

[2] Bruce Scates, ‘Monumental Errors: How Australia Can Fix its Racist Colonial Statues’, The Conversation, 28 August 2017,; Vanessa Mills and Ben Collins, ‘The Controversial Statue that was Added to, not Town Down or Vandalised’, ABC News, 29 August 2017,; Stephen Gilchrist, ‘Surfacing Histories: Memorials and Public Art in Perth’, Artlink, issue 38:2, June 2018, pp. 42-47.

[3] See, for example, Hannah Natanson, ‘There’s a New Way to Deal with Confederate Monuments: Signs that Explain their Racist History’, Washington Post, 22 September 2019,

[4] Tim Watkin, ‘Slater Slams History. At Least the Discussion of it’, Pundit blog, 3 April 2016,

[5] For example, attempts to create new plaques for the memorial to slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, England, and to controversial eighteenth-century politician Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, Scotland, have become bogged down in disputes about wording and interpretations of history: Tristan Cork, ‘Plaque Rewrite as Row Goes On Over Wording for Colston Statue’, Bristol Post, 26 March 2019,; Bill Caven, ‘Historians Clash in War of Words Over Memorial to Dundas and Slavery Past’, Scottish Daily Mail, 28 October 2019,

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 2: subtraction

Continuing with my discussion of controversial memorials, adapted from a paper given at the New Zealand Art Crime Symposium 2019, in this post I look at the strategy of ‘subtraction’.

Space previously occupied by statue of Edward Cornwallis, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada (statue removed 2018)

– – – – Subtraction – – – –

One response to contentious monuments, which I’ll label ‘subtraction’, seeks their removal from public places. The case for removing memorials rests on the belief that they either celebrate or are silent about past oppression, and thus perpetuate injustice in the present.

Demands for the removal of monuments are often met with talk of cultural vandalism and comparisons with the iconoclasm of the Taliban or Islamic State. In 2017, then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull described proposals to remove or change colonial memorials as ‘Stalinist’.[1] There’s some irony in Turnbull’s statement: many people around the world cheered when statues of Stalin and other Soviet figures were toppled in Eastern Europe after 1989, recognising that those statues represented a political system that had trampled on basic human rights.

Few people, I suspect, would argue for the retention of all monuments, no matter how abhorrent the individuals or causes they commemorate. Who would feel comfortable with seeing Nazi monuments in modern Germany, for example? The real issue is where we draw the line.

How should we decide whether a particular monument meets the threshold for removal? There are a number of questions that can be helpful in making this decision:

  • If the memorial is to an individual, was that person responsible for crimes against humanity or gross violations of human rights, such as genocide, slavery or torture?
  • What was the original purpose and context for the creation of the memorial? Most Confederate memorials in public places in the Southern United States, for example, were not erected in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War as symbols of mourning for the war dead. They were constructed in the twentieth century, during the era of segregation, as symbols of white supremacy.[2]
  • Are the inscriptions on the memorial offensive, or does the monument depict members of particular groups in a derogatory or demeaning manner?
  • Is the location of the memorial problematic? For example, is it on land of particular significance to indigenous people, or will its proximity to an important public building such as a courthouse have a chilling effect on access for people who feel alienated by its presence?
  • Does the monument dominate the landscape around it?
  • Has the memorial become a rallying point for groups with hateful ideologies?

This can never be a simple tick-box exercise – it’s not a case of ‘three strikes and you’re out’. Sometimes one factor alone might be enough to warrant a monument’s removal, while in other cases the argument for removal might rest on a combination of factors. In many cases, the best option may be to leave the memorial in place and employ a different strategy for responding to it.

The answers to the questions I’ve posed may not be straightforward. There will usually be differences of historical and artistic interpretation, and divergent perspectives on the memorial’s meaning and impact – the very differences that give rise to division over monuments in the first place. The answers to these questions may also change over time, as interpretations change or new information comes to light. But working through questions like those I’ve proposed may at least help to focus discussion about a memorial’s future.

In most cases, I don’t favour the destruction or removal of historical monuments, even though they represent objectionable individuals or attitudes. These monuments aren’t neutral records of history, but they do provide important evidence about the views of those who created them. As a historian, I’m reluctant to destroy evidence, and cautious about removing it from its original context. There’s also a danger of sanitising the past by removing structures that document attitudes, once widely held, that created unjust policies and practices.

Complete destruction or removal from public view aren’t the only options for contentious monuments. Sometimes a memorial that’s controversial in one location is less so in another. For example, a statue of Queen Victoria that was the focus of much criticism when it stood outside the Irish Parliament building in Dublin was relocated in 1987 to Sydney, Australia, where it sits outside a shopping centre and barely gets a second glance.[3]

Removal of Queen Victoria statue from outside Leinster House, Dublin (from
Queen Vic 2
Queen Victoria statue outside the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Jamie Williams for City of Sydney,

Another strategy, employed particularly in parts of Eastern Europe, is to move memorials that represent past attitudes and regimes to a single, open-air location – sometimes referred to as a statue graveyard – where they may be ignored or, perversely, become tourist attractions.[4]

Head of statue of Lenin, Citadel Museum, Berlin, 2017

A popular suggestion for controversial memorials is that they should be moved to museums. This can be a good solution in some cases. Displayed in a museum, a memorial can be contextualised with interpretive information and by juxtaposition with other objects that tell contrasting stories. The memorial will also still be available to researchers who are interested in it from a historical or artistic perspective. But is it really fair to ask museums to become the dumping grounds for what are often large, heavy objects? Does placing offensive monuments in a museum necessarily neutralise their negative impacts? At a time when museums are trying to become more welcoming to groups that have felt excluded from these institutions, what will be the effect of giving space to imposing statues of white men?[5]

[1] Katharine Murphy, ‘Changing Colonial Statues is Stalinist, says Malcolm Turnbull’, Guardian, 25 August 2017,

[2] Southern Poverty Law Centre, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, updated 1 February 2019,

[3] Yvonne Whelan, Reinventing Modern Dublin: Streetscape, Iconography and the Politics of Identity, Dublin, University of Dublin Press, 2003, pp. 195-201.

[4] Jordan Brasher and Derek H. Alderman, ‘A Confederate Statue Graveyard Could Help Bury the Old South’, 26 July 2019, The Conversation,

[5] Janeen Bryant, Benjamin Filene, Louis Nelson, Jennifer Scott, and Suzanne Seriff, ‘Are Museums the Rightful Homes for Confederate Monuments?’, Centre for the Future of Museums Blog, 3 April 2018,

Must rogues fall? On the mathematics of monuments. Part 1: division

I’ve previously published a couple of short blog posts – on Pundit and Bay Heritage Blog – about strategies for dealing with controversial memorials, using the terminology of arithmetic. In October 2019, I fleshed these previous pieces out into a paper for the New Zealand Art Crime Symposium in Wellington, which had the theme ‘Iconoclasts, Vandals, and Artists’. This post and the ones to follow are adapted from that paper. I begin by looking at division.

Monuments, it seems, are having a moment. In the 1920s, the Austrian writer Robert Musil famously observed that ‘There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument’. Statues and memorials, Musil wrote, form an unnoticed backdrop as people go about their daily lives.[1] Yet, for the past few years, certain monuments have been anything but invisible in a number of countries that are grappling with the legacies of colonialism and historical injustice. Instead, they have become the focus of debate about what should be done with memorials to contentious individuals or events.

We seem to be in a time of iconoclasm: purposeful attacks on images – in this case, memorials – because of the beliefs, attitudes and power structures they are seen to represent.[2] Although recent debates have often involved campaigns for the orderly removal of monuments by the relevant authorities, rather than spontaneous and unofficial attempts at destruction, the iconoclastic impulse is still present.

There’s nothing new about controversies over memorials. Around the world, monuments have often been targeted during times of political turmoil, particularly after changes of regime. But the recent period of international focus on memorials seen as representing colonialism, racism and white supremacy began in 2015. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Rhodes Must Fall movement demanded the removal of a statue of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes,[3] while in the United States killings of African-Americans by police and white supremacists sparked growing calls for the removal of Confederate memorials.[4] In Britain, too, monuments to imperialists and slave-traders have come under fire,[5] as have those to individuals involved in the dispossession of indigenous peoples in Australia and Canada.[6]


Statue of slave-trader Edward Colston with face painted white, Bristol, England, 2017

Aotearoa New Zealand has had its own contested memorials.[7] Over the past few years, statues of James Cook in Gisborne have been vandalised. There’s also been a petition to remove the memorial in Ōtāhuhu to Colonel Marmaduke Nixon because of his role in one of the most notorious incidents in the Waikato War, the attack on Rangiaowhia in 1864.

Treaty Times, February 1995

A number of colonial monuments were vandalised in the 1990s, when Māori were protesting against the inadequacy of Government redress for historical Treaty of Waitangi claims. One casualty during that earlier period was the statue of Premier John Ballance in Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, which was initially beheaded (and the head replaced by a pumpkin), then destroyed completely.[8]

Ballance statue 1995 image from ATL
Kia Kingi practising flax plaiting beneath the damaged statue of John Ballance in Pākaitore/Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, photographed on 18 March 1995 by Evening Post staff photographer Phil Reid. EP/1995/0789/15a-F, Dominion Post collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Debates about historical monuments raise complex issues about how we should relate to the past and to its legacies in the present. But for all their complexity, these disputes and the possible responses to them can be considered using the language of basic arithmetic: subtraction, addition, multiplication and division.

÷ ÷ ÷ ÷ Division ÷ ÷ ÷ ÷

Unlike the other three terms I’ll discuss – subtraction, addition and multiplication – ‘division’ is not a strategy for responding to controversies over monuments. Instead, it describes the situation in which a particular monument has become contentious, dividing opinion within the community. To understand why memorials can be divisive, we need to consider their social function.

Like other symbols, memorials are erected to represent and construct the identity of a community – whether that community is a school, a town or a nation. Historical monuments signal the events and personalities that are, at least officially, considered important in the history of that community. Statues of the ‘great men’ of ‘our’ past are intended to draw our attention to our common membership, with them and with each other, of a particular community. But ideas about history, identity and belonging are always contested and evolving.

When historical monuments come under attack, their critics are sometimes accused of stirring up division. The assumption underlying such accusations is often that existing monuments simply record what happened in the past, and ‘You can’t change history’. But the status quo is not neutral. Historical monuments represent particular views of a community’s past and present: who is important and who gets ignored; who were the aggressors and who the victims. More often than not, they represent the perspectives of those who are (or were) politically and socially powerful, and ignore other perspectives. Divisiveness is built into the landscape, and it’s this inbuilt bias the critics are reacting to.

[1] ‘Monuments’, in Robert Musil, Flypaper, transl. Peter Wortsman, London, Penguin, 2011, pp. 19-24 (quote at p. 19).

[2] On iconoclasm see, for example, Tabitha Barber and Stacy Boldrick (eds), Art Under Attack: Histories of British Iconoclasm, London, Tate Publishing, 2013.

[3] For one perspective on Rhodes Must Fall, see Saul Dubow, ‘Rhodes Must Fall, Brexit, and Circuits of Knowledge’, in Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (eds), Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 111-120. On memorials in South Africa more generally, see Sabine Marschall, Landscape of Memory: Commemorative Monuments, Memorials and Public Statuary in Post-apartheid South Africa, Leiden, Brill, 2009; Martin J. Murray, Commemorating and Forgetting: Challenges for the New South Africa, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2013; Runette Kruger, ‘Ruptures and Continuities in the Post-apartheid Political and Cultural Landscape: A Reading of South African Monument Culture’, in Laura A. Macaluso (ed.), Monument Culture: International Perspectives on the Future of Monuments in a Changing World, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2019, pp. 85-97.

[4] See, for example, David B. Allison (ed.), Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2018.

[5] For example, the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, discussed in Olivette Otele, ‘The Guerilla Arts in Brexit Bristol’, in Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch (eds), Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, pp. 133-141.

[6] For Australia, see Paul Daley, ‘Heroes, Monuments and History’, Meanjin, vol. 77, no. 1, Autumn 2018, pp. 86-97. For some recent Canadian debates, see Trina Roache, ‘History Decolonized: A Closer Look at Edward Cornwallis and Why His Statue Toppled’, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network News, 16 February 2018,; Nancy Janovicek, ‘What’s in a Monument? Part II: The Edward Cornwallis Monument and Reconciliation’, Active History blog, 14 August 2018,; Murad Hemmadi, ‘What Fights About “Erasing” History Are Really About’, Maclean’s, 18 August 2018,

[7] For recent examples, see Paul Little, ‘Monumental Blunders: Should New Zealand Get Rid of its Controversial Statues?’, North and South, November 2017, pp. 58-65. For some older examples, see Jock Phillips, To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials, Nelson, Potton & Burton, 2016, pp. 50-52; Mark Stocker, ‘“Director of the Canoe”: The Auckland Statue of Sir George Grey’, Melbourne Art Journal,  vol. 11-12, 2009, pp. 57-58; Paulette Wallace, ‘A Fraction Too Much Friction: Heritage Dissonance and the Whitely Memorial’, Te Ara – The Journal of Museums Aotearoa, vol. 33, 2009, pp. 18-22.

[8] On the Ballance statue, see Ewan Morris, ‘Men Alone in Bronze and Stone: A Tale of Two Statues’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, n.s. vol. 13, 2012, pp. 62-76.

Don’t be an Egmont!

2019-10-26 04.54.52

At 5 AM saw for a few Minutes the Top of the peaked Mountain above the Clowds, bearing NE; It is of a prodigious height and its top is cover’d with everlasting snow. … I have named it Mount Egmont in honour of the Earl of Egmont — This mountain seems to have a pretty large base and to rise with a gradual assent to the peak and what makes it more conspicuous is, its being situated near the Sea, and a flat Country in its neighbourhood which afforded a very good asspect — — being cloathed with Wood and Verdure.

James Cook’s journal, 13 January 1770

It’s 250 years since Lieutenant James Cook, captain of HMS Endeavour, saw and renamed the mountain that Māori knew as Taranaki. Cook named it Mount Egmont after John Perceval, the second Earl of Egmont and First Lord of the Admiralty. Cook never set foot in the Taranaki region, but he was impressed by the mountain, which he likened to Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands) and which the Endeavour‘s botanist Joseph Banks described in his journal as ‘certainly the noblest hill I have ever seen’.

Taranaki was just one of many places given a new name by Cook as he sailed around Aotearoa New Zealand — and plenty of other places were named after Cook during the subsequent colonisation of the country.

Statue of Captain Cook in Marton, New Zealand, which is named after Cook’s birthplace in England.

250 years later, the name Mount Egmont will finally be disappearing from maps as the result of an agreement between the iwi of Taranaki and the Crown. The agreement will see the mountain given legal personality (in the same way as has recently been done for the Whanganui River and Te Urewera) and managed by a joint iwi-Crown governance entity. It will also result in recognition of Taranaki Maunga (mountain) as the landmark’s sole name. This agreement is the culmination of a long campaign by Taranaki Māori for recognition of the mountain’s original name.

Taranaki Maunga (or Mounga, as it’s often spelled in the Taranaki dialect of Māori) is enormously significant to all the eight iwi of Taranaki. (For any non-New Zealand readers, I should explain that Taranaki is the name of the mountain, but also of the region that surrounds it, and of one of the local iwi or tribes of the region.) Māori from Taranaki view Taranaki Maunga as an ancestor, and their identity is inseparable from the maunga.

Restoration of the mountain’s Māori name had some Pākehā supporters in the first part of the twentieth century. In 1938, the mayor of Hāwera, J.E. Campbell, told a meeting of the Aotea Māori Association that the mountain’s name was ‘a disaster’ and that ‘the old name of Taranaki’ should be substituted for Egmont ahead of New Zealand’s centennial in 1940. This view was supported by the Rev. P. Moki of New Plymouth, who said ‘Taranaki always had been and will be the name for the mountain recognised by the Maori race throughout the Dominion.’

Māori began calling publicly for the name Taranaki to be restored to the mountain in the 1970s, but it was in the 1980s that the issue really came to a head. In 1985, the Taranaki Māori Trust Board submitted a proposal for the maunga to be officially named Taranaki to the New Zealand Geographic Board, the body responsible for assigning official place names. The Geographic Board decided that the mountain’s official name should be ‘Mount Taranaki’, with ‘Egmont’ continued as a secondary name in brackets. There was then a three-month period during which objections to the Board’s decision could be lodged.

The release of the Geographic Board’s decision provoked a furious debate, the intensity of which is hard to believe some 35 years later. There were numerous letters to the editor, particularly in Taranaki newspapers, petitions were organised, and many official and voluntary organisations in Taranaki took a position on the matter. Essentially, the debate pitted a large number of Pākehā who objected vehemently to the Geographic Board’s decision against Māori and more liberal Pākehā who supported it. (Justin Gregory has produced a very good piece for Radio New Zealand looking back at the debate — you can read or listen to it here.)

Ultimately, the Minister of Lands Koro Wetere accepted a revised recommendation from the Geographic Board in 1986, that the mountain’s official name should become ‘Mount Taranaki or Mount Egmont’, thereby recognising both names and allowing people to choose for themselves which they wanted to use. That remains the situation to this day, although in practice it’s clear that use of ‘Mount Egmont’ has declined dramatically, and it seems likely that few will miss the name Egmont when it finally disappears.

The rapid decline in usage of Egmont in the space of a few decades is all the more remarkable given that in the 1980s many Pākehā seemed to feel that the proposal to restore the name Taranaki posed an existential threat to their very identity. It’s not surprising that Pākehā residents of Taranaki should identify strongly with the mountain — anyone who’s been to Taranaki knows how dominant the mountain is in the landscape (at least, on the days when it’s not covered in clouds). Pākehā identification, not simply with the mountain but with the name Egmont had also been reinforced by the extensive use of the mountain’s image and its English name in commercial and organisational branding. As Ian Wedde writes, this was:

a culture for which ‘Mount Egmont’ would soon become an ideal, a symbol of individuality, even of nationhood, appearing on the wrappers of butter, cheese, knitwear, and other products of the region, as well as in a great deal of art.

At the time of writing, this iconography is being explored by the artist Fiona Clark in an exhibition at Wellington’s Adam Art Gallery entitled ‘Egmontiana’ (images are currently available on the Gallery’s website, though presumably only for the duration of the show).

The willingness of Pākehā to use the mountain’s name and image in a commercial context shows how different Pākehā identification with the mountain was from the spiritual connection of Māori. Nonetheless, the meaning of the mountain and its name to Pākehā is worth further exploration. For some time I’ve been struggling with an article I’ve been trying to write about the Taranaki/Egmont name debate of the 1980s. What I’ve written so far is too long and too unfocused, but I’m starting to think that Pākehā identity and identification with place could provide a useful focus for the article.

But what, you may ask, of the Earls of Egmont, whose name the mountain currently still bears? In 1985, when the naming debate was raging, a couple of newspapers sought comment from the eleventh earl, who turned out to be a 71-year-old called Frederick Perceval living on a ranch in Alberta, Canada. The Earl was too deaf to speak on the phone, but his wife told reporters that she and her husband objected strongly to the proposal to replace the name Egmont: ‘You don’t go changing generations of tradition’. The Earl had never visited New Zealand, she said, but people from around the world had sent him postcards of the mountain. ‘Asked if the earl had an ambition to see Mt Egmont, she said he had always wanted to go to Africa.’

The earldom became extinct in 2011, on the death of the twelfth earl, who left no successors.


Auckland Star, 9 December 1938, p. 4.

Sunday News, 11 August 1985.

Taranaki Herald, 14 August 1985.

Ian Wedde, ‘Translation and Representation: A History of Ferries’, in Ian Wedde and Gregory Burke (eds), Now See Hear! Art, Language and Translation, Wellington, Victoria University Press for the Wellington City Art Gallery, 1990, pp. 95-102.