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.

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