Controversial monuments: doing the maths

Today we are publishing a guest post by Ewan Morris, a New Zealand historian with a particular interest in memorials and how societies remember the past.

In the wake of last month’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia – held to protest against the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee – statues and other memorials are very much in the news. Responding to campaigns to remove monuments to the Confederacy from public places, US President Donald Trump described the removal of ‘our beautiful statues and monuments’ as ‘sad’.

Australia, too, is seeing a renewed debate over memorials to its colonial past. Indigenous Australian broadcaster Stan Grant, for example, has questioned the inscription on a Sydney statue of Captain Cook which describes Cook as having ‘discovered’ Australia, ignoring the continent’s long history of prior occupation by Aboriginal people.

In New Zealand we’ve had our own controversies over the Cook statue in Gisborne. And now there is a petition to remove the memorial in Ōtāhuhu to Colonel Nixon, on account of his role in one of the most notorious incidents of the Waikato War, the 1864 attack on Rangiaowhia. The petition calls for the ‘Eurocentric’ memorial to be relocated to Auckland Museum.

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The Nixon Memorial, Ōtāhuhu

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

When historical monuments come under attack, it is easy to accuse the monuments’ critics of stirring up division. Often, however, debates over statues and other memorials reveal divisions that already exist within communities.

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. Too often, they represent the perspectives of those who are (or were) politically and socially powerful, and ignore other perspectives.

Divisiveness, then, is built into the landscape, but there are a number of ways of responding to it.

One response to contentious monuments is to seek their removal from public places, on the grounds that they celebrate past oppression and so help to entrench injustice in the present. Such demands are often met with talk of cultural vandalism, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently described the defacing of colonial memorials as ‘Stalinist’.

Yet 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.

In fact, few of us would argue for the retention of all monuments, no matter how abhorrent the individuals or causes they commemorate; the question is where we draw the line.

Still, in most cases I do not favour the destruction of historical monuments. These monuments provide important evidence about the views of those who created them. As a historian, I am reluctant to destroy evidence. There is also a danger of sanitising the past by removing structures that document past oppression.

In some cases, it may be appropriate to move memorials to less prestigious locations, or to museums. However, it is generally better to encourage re-evaluation of the historical figures and events memorialised in stone or bronze than to simply consign them to history’s scrapheap.

If attitudes and historical scholarship have moved on since a memorial was created, why not add to the existing text and imagery? A new plaque on the memorial itself or an information board nearby can help to put a memorial into context and provide new information or alternative perspectives on the past. Digital technologies also allow us to add new layers of interpretation without destroying the old ones: websites and smartphone apps make it easy to ensure information about memorials and the events they commemorate is accessible and up to date.

Debates over monuments tend to focus on individual statues or memorials, but this focus misses a larger picture. In New Zealand, Australia and the United States, statues in public places are overwhelmingly of straight, white, wealthy men. Memorials disproportionately represent history as seen through the eyes of such men. This is changing, but not fast enough.

Instead of talking about the possible removal of existing monuments, we could think about creating new works of public art that tell different stories from those represented by older memorials. These new works need not be bronze or stone monuments; they can take new forms that may be playful, provocative or interactive.

Statues themselves are a European form. In New Zealand we are now seeing more commemorative projects initiated by Māori and employing Māori iconography.

Today, at Rangiaowhia, new memorials (as shown below) convey a Māori perspective on the attack by Colonel Nixon’s troops. Perhaps the time has come for such a perspective to be represented at Ōtāhuhu as well?12666364755_84df692bf5_o12668611014_0665230bea_o
The emotional unveiling of the memorial at Rangiaowhia, Feb 2014

Ewan Morris

For more information about the Nixon Memorial in Ōtāhuhu see the NZ History page about the memorial here.
Images: Nixon Memorial images are from Auckland War Memorial Cenotaph site.
Images of the unveiling of new Rangiaowhia memorial, Waikato, February 21 2014, by Manatū Taonga, the New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage.
 Image credit: Flikr, alphapix / John Cowpland. 

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