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.

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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]

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‘Explorers’ monument’, Fremantle, Western Australia

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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, https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/historian-captain-cook-statue-graffiti-indigenous-20180418-p4zade.html. A video of Lisa Murray’s Jim Kerr Address, ‘Monuments and Memories: Reassessing Colonial Imperialism’, 18 April 2018, can be seen at https://australia.icomos.org/events/jim-kerr-address/.

[2] Bruce Scates, ‘Monumental Errors: How Australia Can Fix its Racist Colonial Statues’, The Conversation, 28 August 2017, https://theconversation.com/monumental-errors-how-australia-can-fix-its-racist-colonial-statues-82980; Vanessa Mills and Ben Collins, ‘The Controversial Statue that was Added to, not Town Down or Vandalised’, ABC News, 29 August 2017, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-29/explorers-monument-added-to-not-torn-down-or-vandalised/8853224; 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, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/09/22/theres-new-way-deal-with-confederate-monuments-signs-that-explain-their-racist-history/.

[4] Tim Watkin, ‘Slater Slams History. At Least the Discussion of it’, Pundit blog, 3 April 2016, https://www.pundit.co.nz/slater-slams-history-at-least-the-discussion-of-it.

[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, https://www.pressreader.com/uk/bristol-post/20190326/281629601617510; Bill Caven, ‘Historians Clash in War of Words Over Memorial to Dundas and Slavery Past’, Scottish Daily Mail, 28 October 2019, https://www.pressreader.com/uk/scottish-daily-mail/20191028/281668256766086.

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