"Engaging is not erasing"

How to deal with controversial statues?

Statue of Edward Colston with blindfold before it was taken down by protestors, via Shutterstock

A toppled Robert E. Lee, a beheaded Christopher Columbus, and a sunken Edward Colston. In recent weeks, statues of these historical figures, and many more, have been literally removed from their pedestals. The murder of George Floyd by a white police officer has triggered demonstrations and protest against racism and police brutality all over the world. As a result, statues of historical figures are now a topic of discussion. In the Netherlands, the heated controversy over the national heritage of the Golden Age has once again been brought to the streets, as also here statues have been attacked over the last days. Lee, Columbus, and Colston were the beginning, and the end is not in sight just yet.

A broader historical debate

According to Christian Wicke, assistant professor of Political History, the debate we are having at the moment in many countries is a very healthy one since it allows for a more critical and democratic historical culture. “What we see now in a short period, protests over monuments or statues, is in many ways symptomatic of a broader historical debate and controversies that have been going on for decades”. The origins can be found in the 1960s. Collective memory and heritage, and history in general,  from then onwards became increasingly contested by civil society, scholars and politicians. New social movements such as the Provos arose, demanding a more critical outlook on history. As many perceive such actions as a threat to national identity and history, this often causes conservative reactions in society and politics, or so-called history wars or culture wars.

Provo Attack on Van Heutsz Monument in Amsterdam, 1966, via Nationaal Archief

“This kind of activism is called memory activism”, notes Ann Rigney, Professor of Comparative Literature and head of the ERC Project ‘Remembering Activism’. “Memory activism is about making available information which was hidden or obscured in such a way as to change the dominant story about the past,” Rigney explains. The defacing or demolition of a statue is rooted in a desire to raise awareness about the existence of a darker, hitherto silenced part of history. “Memory activists want greater recognition for all parts of history: including slavery, colonialism, and racism,” she adds. Because without such recognition past injustice will continue into the present in a new form.

The protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd have led to the targeting of offensive statues because they are seen to symbolize a more general and deep-rooted history. People aren’t just protesting so as to mourn Floyd’s death, but also because his death is part of a bigger story: that of worldwide, systemic racism.

What we see now is in many ways symptomatic of a broader historical debate and controversies that have been going on for decades

Susanne Knittel, cultural memory scholar and Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, notes that “there is another important context which can help explain why this time around the protests have been so widespread and vehement, and that is the context of the global coronavirus pandemic, which in the US has disproportionately affected poor BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities”.

For Knittel, it comes as no surprise that the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States have also targeted Confederate statues. “These statues are symbols of white supremacy and the history of racism in the US,” she observes. “You would have expected the US government to have removed them long ago, but there has been no official interest in removing them. This, in turn, speaks to the need for a bottom-up grass-roots movement. And this is why the resistance movement against racism and white supremacy naturally targets these symbols,” she continues.

Furthermore, Knittel notes, the erection of these monuments coincided with milestones in the emancipation of Black people and with moments of heightened activity on the part of the KKK (as the graph below shows). “So these statues are not designed to educate people about the Civil War, and nor are they official government monuments; they are clear symbols of racism, intimidating and antagonizing Black people and anti-racists.”

Confederate monument and statue building from 1870 to 1980, via Mother Jones

What do we do now?

It is clear that we need to think carefully about what to do with hateful or otherwise controversial monuments. There are various ways we can begin to think differently about them. Rigney’s advice is to reframe them, so that we can look at them differently. She mentions that doing “something” with – rather than destroying statues is very important. Destroying a statue means losing its potential to provoke critical thinking about the story that comes with it. “Think about changing its meaning or position but keep it as a resource for complexifying history,” she continues.

Think about changing the statue’s meaning or position but keep it as a resource for complexifying history

“If you move the statue to a museum, it becomes an object of display, rather than an object of power,” Rigney argues. However, a history museum, according to Wicke, is still a space of an institutionalised and selective narrative of the past. “If you keep it in a more public space,you integrate it into our everyday life, allowing time and people to alter it, be it with graffiti, a plaque or other forms of memory activism”. This is what makes the debate so complicated: there is no neutral ground for monuments. And that is exactly why we need to think critically about them, wherever they are. “Just imagine,” Knittel adds, responding to Wicke, “that the statue of Edward Colston, the one that was thrown into the harbor by BLM activists in Bristol, had been left there in the water. And that people could see it, lying there. That would be the ultimate reframing of the statue, it would turn it into what James Young calls a countermonument.” Wicke, Knittel, and Rigney agree: try to keep them in the public space, and reframe them, so that we may look at them differently.

The Memento Park in Budapest houses many Communists statues that have been taken out of their original context in order to educate visitors on their history, via HungaryToday

Monuments are artefacts of memory and memoralization. “These monuments are not like historical buildings, they don’t date from the time in question,” Knittel explains. They represent what we as a community decided to keep in our cultural heritage, what our culture celebrates and values, consciously or not. They are about what kind of story we want to tell current and future generations, about ourselves and our history. In that sense, the Black Lives Matter protests are also protests against how the past has been remembered, and the way the story has been told for so long.

“At this moment, we are focused on taking them down, but we have to be aware that simply getting rid of statues could end up simply whitewashing history,” Rigney warns. She continues: “I appreciate the symbolism of Colston’s body being dumped into the sea, as so many of slaves were in the past, but we should also think more about ways to give statues a new meaning rather than making them disappear.” Susanne Knittel too emphazises the importance of educating ourselves and future generations about the crimes of the past. “By drawing attention to problematic statues, this education takes place,” she continues. “I would say that the activists who dumped Colston in the harbor probably did more to educate the public about the history of slavery than the unquestioned presence of the statue ever did.”