Boulcott’s Farm

Boulcott’s Farm memorial, Lower Hutt

Today is the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm, which took place in what is now the city of Lower Hutt, where I live. Yesterday’s Dominion Post reported that the Deputy Mayor of Lower Hutt, Tui Lewis, is working to address the one-sided nature of the memorial to the battle that stands in a prominent position on the corner of High Street and Military Road, near Hutt Hospital. The memorial commemorates ten members of British and colonial forces whose deaths were associated with the battle, and describes the Māori attack on the British outpost at Boulcott’s Farm solely from a Pākehā perspective.

The news article, written by journalist and historian Nicholas Boyack, begins with the comment: ‘If someone does a PhD on war memorials and civic racism, the stone commemorating the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm would make a great case study.’ I can’t claim to have done a PhD on the subject, but I have written about the changing ways in which Boulcott’s Farm has been commemorated and mythologised by Pākehā, and how those stories have started to come under challenge in more recent decades.

The battle was part of a wider conflict in Te Awakairangi, the Hutt Valley, which subsequently spilled over into the Porirua area. The cause of the fighting was conflict over land, arising from the flawed New Zealand Company ‘purchase’ of the Wellington area and the Crown’s confirmation of the Company’s claims at the expense of Māori rights (for more detail, see the Waitangi Tribunal’s report on the Wellington region).

On 16 May 1846, a large Māori taua (war party) attacked the British military garrison at Boulcott’s Farm. After several hours of fighting, the taua withdrew, leaving several British soldiers dead. It is unclear how many Māori, if any, died in the fighting.

This relatively minor skirmish came to loom large in Pākehā public memory, largely through the repetition of one particular story: that of Private William Allen, more commonly known as Bugler Allen. Allen supposedly blew a warning blast on his bugle to alert the garrison to the attack, and continued sounding the alarm even as he was being killed by a member of the taua.

This story first appears very soon after the battle, and has been repeated up to the present day. It’s impossible to know if there is any truth in it, although it’s notable that it doesn’t appear in the official report on the skirmish from the British officer in command. Throughout its many retellings, the consistent themes in the story are Allen’s youth, bravery and self-sacrifice. Although Allen was actually a 21-year-old, he is portrayed in the stories as a boy, perhaps as young as 12. This misrepresentation of Allen’s age heightens the contrast with his attackers, who are depicted looming over him as he gallantly plays on.

Illustration by Alfred Pearse, Young England, 50th annual volume, 1929, p. 25 (also published in Young New Zealand, 9th annual volume, 1929, p. 25)

The story of Bugler Allen reinforced two common themes from the popular literature of British imperialism. On the one hand, the willingness of Britons to ‘do their duty’ by sacrificing themselves for the greater good; on the other, the ‘savagery’ of indigenous peoples, who are depicted as an undifferentiated mass, with no motivation beyond anger and vengeance.

This cultural context explains the popularity of the Bugler Allen story and the way in which it elevated the significance of Boulcott’s Farm. But the Boulcott’s Farm monument also had more local origins. By the 1920s, Lower Hutt was developing rapidly, and was being promoted as a thriving and progressive place in which to live and work. At the same time, the pioneering phase of Pākehā settlement in the Hutt was passing out of living memory and into nostalgia, forming a romantic prelude to the development of a modern city.

This local context helps to explain why, in 1922, the then Mayor of Lower Hutt sought to have a commemorative tablet from Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington re-erected in the Hutt. The tablet had been erected in a Wellington church in 1846 by soldiers of the 58th Regiment, in memory of their comrades who died at Boulcott’s Farm. The Mayor’s request for the tablet was granted, but its removal from Wellington was opposed by the Early Settlers and Historical Association of Wellington. An agreement was reached whereby the New Zealand Government, the Lower Hutt Council and the Early Settlers and Historical Association would jointly fund a new memorial, which was erected in 1925.

As it turned out, however, the historic tablet was never returned to Wellington, but was instead re-erected in 1933 at St James’ Anglican Church in central Lower Hutt. For several years in the 1930s, and on the battle’s centenary in 1946, commemorative services were held at the church on the anniversary of the battle. The memorial tablet was subsequently accidentally knocked down and destroyed, but the wording of the original still appears on a stone in the churchyard.

Boulcott’s Farm memorial stone re-erected at St James’ Church, Lower Hutt. Evening Post, 12 August 1933. Ref: EP-New Zealand Wars-Wellington, Evening Post collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
Current Boulcott’s Farm memorial stone, St James’ Churchyard.

From the 1970s, the Boulcott’s Farm story as been reassessed and rewritten, as part of the wider revision of our understanding of New Zealand’s colonial past. Boulcott’s Farm appeared in works by Pākehā writers, such as Keith Aberdein’s script and book for the 1977 TV series The Governor and Lloyd Jones’s 1988 novel Splinter, which took a more critical or satirical view of colonisation. More recently, Boulcott’s Farm has been re-imagined from the perspective of Māori combatants in Witi Ihimaera’s novel The Trowenna Sea (2009) and Jenny McLeod’s opera Hōhepa (premiered 2012). Both of these works focus on the story of Hōhepa Te Umuroa, one of a number of Māori transported to Van Diemen’s Land for their alleged involvement in the Battle of Boulcott’s Farm. In Ihimaera’s and McLeod’s accounts, Boulcott’s Farm was the tragic result of injustices committed against Māori by colonial authorities.

The current reconsideration of the Boulcott’s Farm memorial is not the first time questions have been raised about the monument. When The Governor was broadcast in 1977, an article in the Hutt News commented that ‘In the spirit of the times, the memorial commemorates only the white soldiers who were killed. More modern thinking might suggest that the Maoris [sic], too, should have their memorial.’ The Hutt Council received a few letters in the 1970s and 80s asking it to do something about the memorial’s one-sided perspective. At the time, however, the Council decided to take no action.

Aotearoa New Zealand has come a long way since then, and it’s good to see that the Hutt Deputy Mayor is now taking the lead on working to publicly acknowledge the Māori side of the Boulcott’s Farm story. I’m also encouraged that Tui Lewis is planning to take the time to ensure all those with an interest are consulted before making change. As I’ve written previously, there is value in taking a considered and consultative approach to contentious memorials. In the case of Boulcott’s Farm, the issue is further complicated by the fact that the Māori who fought against the British and colonial forces were expelled from Te Awakairangi, so they live elsewhere and are not among the tangata whenua of the valley.

There are also other places where Māori perspectives on the Hutt War could be acknowledged, including at St James’ Church and at Boulcott’s Farm Heritage Golf Club. The Golf Club is located near the memorial and in the vicinity of where the battle was fought, and may be where the British dead of the battle are buried. It would be good to see some accurate historical interpretation at or near the golf club – and in the meantime, the appalling nonsense on this sign at the club should come down immediately, if it hasn’t already.

Further reading: Ewan Morris, ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: The Battle of Boulcott’s Farm in Public Memory’, Journal of New Zealand Studies, ns 20, 2015, pp. 51-71; republished in slightly revised and updated form as ‘The Boulder and the Bugler: Boulcott’s Farm and Public Memory’, in John Crawford and Ian McGibbon (eds), Tutu te Puehu: New Perspectives on the New Zealand Wars, Wellington, Steele Roberts, 2018, pp. 32-56.

Bruce Connew, A Vocabulary

Yesterday was Anzac Day, and across Aotearoa New Zealand, people gathered to commemorate at memorials to New Zealand’s involvement in overseas wars. Many other memorials across the country, however, were created to remember the wars that took place within Aotearoa between Māori and the forces of the settler state in the nineteenth century. In a recent exhibition and book, the photographer Bruce Connew focuses his camera and our attention on these other war memorials.

The photographic exhibition has, as far as I know, only been shown so far at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery in Auckland, and I haven’t been able to see it. But a friend kindly lent me a copy of the amazing book that accompanies the exhibition. You can see images from the exhibition and book, both of which are entitled ‘A Vocabulary’, here and here.

The originality of Connew’s approach is that he focuses almost entirely on the words of New Zealand’s colonial memorials, often shown in extreme close-up. The wording on the memorials is cropped and cut up in ways that prompt the reader to think about why these words were chosen (by the creators of the memorials, and by Connew) and what they mean. The result is a ‘vocabulary of colonisation’, as Connew aptly calls it.

The photographs in the book start with monuments to the period before, and around the time of, the Treaty of Waitangi. An early image simply reads ‘Cook’s visits’ (2)*, subverting the valorisation of Captain Cook (and its mirror image, demonisation) by reducing him to the level of a relatively fleeting visitor. Instead of picturing a glorious ‘discoverer’, the viewer might think instead of a hapless tourist on a ‘Cook’s tour’ (‘a rapid tour of many places’).

The bulk of the book, however, deals with memorials to the New Zealand Wars, mostly (but not exclusively) erected by and to Pākehā. Here, in panel after panel, the rhetoric of Empire is laid out. Māori defending their land are ‘rebels’ who commit ‘murder’. Pākehā soldiers are ‘brave men’ who ‘fell gallantly’, and it is they, not Māori, who are described as fighting for ‘their country’ or for ‘New Zealand’. British and colonial troops have their names, ranks and regiments recorded, while their opponents mostly appear as undifferentiated ‘Maori tribes’.

There is another perspective in the book, however, undercutting the homogenisation of Māori in the photographed memorials. Each image has a caption which provides information not only about the memorial itself, but also about those who took part on both sides in the battle the memorial commemorates. Here, just as Pākehā troops have their commanders and regiments listed, so too Māori (whether fighting alongside or against British and colonial forces) are given the dignity of having their rangatira and iwi named.

Some memorial inscriptions appear in full, or close to it, but the most thought-provoking are the carefully-selected fragments of text. At times these are almost perversely fragmentary. I’ve described the memorial in Whanganui to Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui as ‘New Zealand’s wordiest memorial’, but Connew’s photographs (e.g. 280-281) show only a few words from the detailed accounts of battles that appear on bronze panels near the base of the monument . An image from another memorial (88) seems to be part of an obscure mathematical puzzle: ‘L 27th 24 ½ Y’.

Some images remind us that Māori were at war with a global empire: ‘Empress of India’ (4); ‘regiment landed from India’ (76); ‘Crimean War’ (151). Others highlight hazards other than enemy fire: ‘accidentally shot by a comrade’ (23); ‘lost at sea’ (84), ‘all drowned’ (218).

The words Connew has focused on can also make us think about memory itself. We can read the words ‘who lost’ (187) and add a question mark, asking ourselves who were the winners and losers of these battles, and of the wars as a whole. Words from another memorial have been arranged to read ‘Maori War were not known’ (152). We could interpret this as suggesting that too few New Zealanders have known about the history of the New Zealand Wars, or that Pākehā have not understood Māori perspectives on those wars.

One image consists only of ‘&’ (39), while two others read simply ‘Also’ (165, 244). These suggestions of some other words about to follow could make us think about the words and stories that are absent from these memorials. Like most war memorials, they largely ignore the impact of war on non-combatants, including soldiers’ families, so it is striking when the memorialised men are placed in the context of a family: ‘also his wife’ (139); ‘somebodys sons’ (221). Above all, the impact of the wars on Māori, the loss of lives, livelihoods and land, is nowhere to be found in most of these texts.

Perhaps in an effort to provide some balance to the overwhelmingly Pākehā narratives presented on the colonial memorials, Connew includes a few photographs of pou whakamaumahara (commemorative poles) erected by Māori at battle sites in recent years. While the increasing use of pou whakamaumahara to commemorate the New Zealand Wars is an interesting and important development, I’m not convinced it was the right decision to include them here. The strength of Connew’s project is its focus on text. All the other images in the book focus exclusively on the memorials’ inscriptions: there are no photos of statues, crosses or other sculptural elements that appear on some of these monuments. Certainly, whakairo (Māori carving) has its own vocabulary, but so does Pākehā sculpture. Including pictures of Māori commemorative sculpture in an otherwise text-focused project risks stereotyping Māori as people of the image and Pākehā as people of the word, a dichotomy that oversimplifies both cultures.

Instead of including the pou whakamaumahara, it would have been better to have included more of the texts of newer memorials that present Māori views of the wars. A few of these are included in the book: the memorial at Te Tarata (205), for example, which pulls no punches in its use of words like ‘tragically’, ‘slaughtered’ and ‘confiscation’; or the bilingual Ruakituri memorial (268), with a Māori text that tells a sharply different story from that in the English version. Even some older memorials can tell a Māori story: I would have liked Connew to have photographed the panel in Māori on the memorial to Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, which was written by Te Keepa’s sister and sets out their whakapapa.

The text on most of the memorials in these photographs is remarkably clear, and they generally seem to have been photographed in good light. In some cases, however, shadows and marks of age obscure the words. In two pictures of the memorial to Sir Donald McLean (51, 212), a shadow creeps across the stone, as though to suggest the way in which the reputations of men like McLean, once held up as Pākehā heroes, have become shadowed by their roles in the dispossession of Māori.

Jock Phillips, in his history of New Zealand war memorials, refers to memorials to the New Zealand Wars as ‘an essay in Pākehā-Māori relationships’. Connew’s A Vocabulary has remixed and rewritten that essay, helping us to see these memorial texts with fresh eyes. Having visited many of these memorials, I can say that most are unlovely creations, their blandness belying the brutality of war and confiscation. Yet somehow, Connew has made them appear both strangely beautiful, and beautifully strange.

*Bracketed numbers refer to image numbers in the book.


Bruce Connew, A Vocabulary, Vapour Momenta Books, 2021.

‘Māori Monument or Pākehā Propaganda? The Memorial to Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, Whanganui’, in Annabel Cooper, Lachy Paterson and Angela Wanhalla (eds), The Lives of Colonial Objects, Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2015, pp. 230-235.

Jock Phillips, To the Memory: New Zealand’s War Memorials, Nelson, Potton and Burton, 2016, ch. 1.

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.

Annotation 2020-04-08 211707
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,