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’.

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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]

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Removal of Queen Victoria statue from outside Leinster House, Dublin (from https://comeheretome.com/2012/05/24/statues-of-dublin-the-unveiling-and-removal-of-queen-victoria)
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Queen Victoria statue outside the Queen Victoria Building, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Jamie Williams for City of Sydney, https://www.cityartsydney.com.au/artwork/queen-victoria-qvb.

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]

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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, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/aug/25/changing-colonial-statues-is-stalinist-says-malcolm-turnbull.

[2] Southern Poverty Law Centre, Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy, updated 1 February 2019, https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

[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, https://theconversation.com/a-confederate-statue-graveyard-could-help-bury-the-old-south-118034.

[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, https://www.aam-us.org/2018/04/03/are-museums-the-rightful-home-for-confederate-monuments.

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