Discussions on statue removal at ACHC 2020 and beyond

Discussions on statue removal at ACHC 2020 and beyond

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, another Earth-shattering event took place in 2020 – global unrest against racism under the “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) banner that erupted over the killing of George Floyd in the USA. This unrest was, among other reactions, characterized by extensive media coverage of statues being removed around the world – from Christopher Columbus and a large number of Confederate statues in the USA, slave owners Edward Colston and Robert Milligan in the UK, to the colonial oppressor King Leopold II in Belgium, to name some of the most well-known examples. While these cases seem to be part of an almost global movement, each of them took place in a specific context defined by the past and present. Before we dive into discussions at a conference, we wish to highlight some of characteristics of contemporary debate around statue removal.

Graffiti marking the death of George Floyd. Photo: ksh2000 from Pexels, 2020

 Monuments and statues hold a unique place in our conception of heritage and the nation-state. Historians have characterised 19th century Europe as the “age of statuomania” when European nations erected a great many statues of figures deemed important for their nation-building processes (John 2019). Bristol’s statue of Edward Colston, for example, was erected in 1895, 170 years after his death, by late Victorian era elites who extolled his philanthropic activities but actually aimed to “reassert paternalism in the face of anxiety over working class unrest” (Watts 2020). In the USA, on the other hand, most of the 780 Confederate statues were built between 1900 and 1940, at least 50 years after the end of the civil war. The most fervent period of building accompanied the adoption of the Jim Crow laws and subsequent re-segregation of Afro-Americans,[1] which aimed to exclude and re-instate old hierarchies. 

Anthropologist Sharon Macdonald noted: “The national monuments that proliferated during nation-making thus served to demarcate particular events, individuals and locations as especially significant to the nation’s memory; and to materialise this in a durable form. Some took the form of sculptures of individuals – almost invariably national heroes whose qualities were taken as iconic of those of the nation itself” (Macdonald 2013). Statues are thus very much about boundary making – they can mark who belongs and who is the Other. As a result many statues also fall – shifts in the ideology can also shift their symbolism. Statue iconoclasm can be thus traced back to various transformations of the ruling classes or social systems. While this particular episode is seen as being directly connected to the death of George Floyd and the BLM movement, the iconoclastic movement began 5 years earlier at Cape Town University in South Africa in 2015, when protestors rallied around the call “Rhodes must fall” and toppled a statue of prominent figure, Cecil Rhodes, a British colonial ruler with explicit racist views. The protest also spread to Oxford University in the UK, where Rhodes also features above the entrance to Oriel College and bears the name of one of the most prestigious scholarships in the world (The Rhodes Trust Scholarship).

And yet somehow, we have to make peace with the fact that the sins of the past have helped forge the modern day.

Philip Dwyer (2020)

Views on “fallism” differ widely. One often-heard argument is that the toppling of statues is editing of a past that cannot be erased or changed.[2] That this argument is widely shared by the descendants of colonisers and settlers and not by BLM activists is telling. As Sarah Maddison from Melbourne University noted, these arguments do not hold weight since history has continually been edited with many significant events of oppressed groups having been erased from public memory (Maddison 2020). In addition, more contemporary approaches to heritage cease to equate heritage with the past or history, but understand any heritage as a construct and resource for the present. As a resource, these statues are not left alone but are actively maintained. As Paul Farber from Monument Lab puts it: “No monument is permanent. It has an aura of permanence, but it is maintained by financial resources and political systems that keep it in place. Monuments that are intact in a city have resources behind them.” The city thus cannot claim that the statue is simply a thing from the past since it’s being actively preserved in the present (Budds 2020).

A statue of Winston Churchill with graffiti “Was a Racist” at Parliament Square, London. Photo: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona from Unsplash, 2020.

Some, therefore, promote obliteration and believe such symbols of contentious and painful past should be completely erased from public spaces. Enzo Traverso from Cornell University, for example, argues that we do not need statues of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco to remember their misdeeds. He also points out that such iconoclasm is not an example of damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) and that this is, in fact, a misleading comparison. Damnation memoriae refers to the obliteration by the powerful, while anti-colonial and anti-racist iconoclasm “aims to liberate the past from their control […] by rethinking it from the point of view of the ruled and the vanquished, not through the eyes of victors” (Traverso 2020).

A third approach to fallism is more concerned with the aftermath of the fallen statues. Proponents believe the What comes next? question is crucial. What to do either with the remains (e.g. plinth or the desecrated statue) and the location of the former monument? According to this view, leaving statues as they are maintains the status quo and does not contribute to societal change, while removal and obliteration of the statues also fail to foster deeper dialogue and may even contribute to the erasure of the memory of painful pasts. Instead, they propose interventions and curatorial practices that re-contextualize the problematic statue and offer more nuanced and multivocal accounts of the past. Through this process, contentious heritage becomes difficult heritage as defined by Sharon Macdonald (2015) – the public commemoration of past atrocities that were committed by the community (or part of the community) and for which they are ashamed (Macdonald 2015). This may follow more standard approaches of community reconciliation or, on the other hand, the approach of agonistic memory, which embraces political conflict as an opportunity for emotional and ethical growth (Berger et al 2017). An example of such creative intervention befell the general Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, USA, which has been completely covered with graffiti, thus turning it into a symbol of BLM protest. In this sense, the desecration becomes the form of occupation and re-appropriation by the protestors. 

Not surprisingly, the topics of anti-racism, BLM and statue toppling took centre stage at the Association of Critical Heritage Studies 5th Biennial Conference (ACHC 2020 Futures). In particular, the role of heritage institutions in the process of societal change was given special emphasis. A forceful introduction to these topics was provided by the keynote address of Prof. Karen Salt from University of Nottingham who spoke about “practicing refusal”, which embraces rejection of the status quo as liveable, and of the terms of diminished subjecthood with which one is presented.[3] The heritage of such refusal includes felled statues such as those addressed by the Monuments, Iconoclasm and Heritage panel led by Sybille Frank and Georg Krayevsky from The Technical University of Darmstadt. Sybille Frank emphasized that activities of toppling are not so much about erasing and forgetting the past, but deconstructing and subverting a troublesome past. She believes fallism is not so much about the past but rather about the “present past”; about the legacies of events and figures that may be long gone, but whose consequences persist into the present (e.g. colonialism, fascism, slavery). She also links these actions of subversion to the city as increasingly politically relevant spaces in the context of globalization and the struggles of the urban marginalized for their right to the city. In this vein, Divya Tolia-Kellye from Sussex University emphasized different understandings of this troublesome heritage; for some, this is part of a rather benign “past”, while others have to live with these reminders of a painful past in addition to the present-day inequalities that arose from them. The latter group thus has a very different understanding of time and place that disturbs the hegemonic “European” understanding of the past. 

Perhaps the most convincing argument was raised by Keith Magee from University College London who called for creating brave spaces when it comes to monuments. In his view, it is crucial to discuss the systems that created the individuals who were put on these pedestals, and why people value these symbols more than they value the real lives of the oppressed. As an example, he discussed the removal of a statue of Tennessean Edward Carmack, known for his endorsement of the lynching of three black men and who led an attack on black newspaper editor and activist Ida B. Wells at the end of the 19th century statue, in Tennessee. While the moment of toppling of an oppressive and violent symbol of oppression by BLM activists was seen as gratifying, he believes a great deal of discussion has been lost with the statue’s removal. He thus suggested placing a statue of Ida B. Wells next to the Carmack statue to face each other into eternity. As he said: “They both existed and they were both part of a complicated reality […] these would create an opportunity to discuss how Carmack’s thoughts and actions led to Ida B Wells’ 1894 four-month English tour to solicit international pressure to stop the lynching and to encourage a boycott of American cotton.” He believes that it is this type of broad historical contextualization and interpretations that enable the world to heal in a very different way. 

BLM protests in Washington DC. Photo: Koshu Kunii from Unsplash, 2020.

How do these events and actions, sometimes from faraway places, resonate in Slovenia and the wider region of Central Europe? These places are no strangers to statues being removed or toppled. The legacies of empires and world wars have been eagerly remembered, as well as forcefully repressed. Discussions on problematic statues usually bring up those dedicated to the Second World War’s National Liberation Movement. For one group, they remain a symbol of freedom and for the other a symbol of violence; they most often coexist with the silent majority who long forgot who and what these monuments commemorate.[4]

  1. Berger, S., Bull, A. C., Hansen, H. L. (2017). What roles can and should heritage play to address social division and crisis in Europe? Traces Journal, 2, 4–5. http://www.traces.polimi.it/download/3250/index.html.pdf 
  2. Budds, D. (2020, 11. junij). Racist Statues Are Falling. What Comes Next? Curbedhttps://www.curbed.com/2020/6/11/21287126/confederate-statue-racist-monument-removal 
  3. Dwyer, P. (2020, 15. junij). Transform statues to make us question the past. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/transform-statues-to-make-us-question-the-past-20200614-p552hd.html
  4. Freeman, L. (2017, 3. september). Everywhere Sir Roy Strong looks, the thumbscrews are tightening. The Times. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/everywhere-former-va-chief-roy-strong-looks-the-thumbscrews-are-tightening-6qhsp3pv7
  5. John, S. (2019). Statues, Politics and the Past. History Today 6–99. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/behind-times/statues-politics-and-past 
  6. Hrobat Virloget K., Čebron Lipovec, N. (2017). Heroes we love? Monuments to the National liberation movement in Istria between memories, care, and collective silence. Studia Ethnologica Croatica, 29, 45–71. https://doi.org/10.17234/SEC.29.2
  7. Macdonald, S. (2013). Memorylands. Heritage and Identity in Europe Today. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203553336
  8. Macdonald, S. (2015). Is ‘Difficult Heritage’ Still ‘Difficult’?. Museum International, 67 (1–4), 6–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/muse.12078
  9. Maddison, S. (2020, 12. junij). Why the statues must fall. The Sydney Morning Herald. https://www.smh.com.au/national/why-the-statues-must-fall-20200612-p5521s.html 
  10. Traverso, E. (2020, 20. junij). Bringing Down Statues Doesn’t Erase History, It Makes Us See It More Clearly. The Wire. https://thewire.in/world/statues-racism-history-protests 
  11. Watts, J. (2020, 8. junij). Edward Colston statue toppled: how Bristol came to see the slave trader as a hero and philanthropist. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/edward-colston-statue-toppled-how-bristol-came-to-see-the-slave-trader-as-a-hero-and-philanthropist-14027
  1. Data was collected by the Southern Poverty Law Center – more on this.[
  2. One example is a comment by the former director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Roy Strong : “Once you start rewriting history on that scale, there won’t be a statue or a historic house standing … The past is the past. You can’t rewrite history.” (Source) [
  3. Karen Salt quoting Tina Campt at the ACHC 2020 – personal notes by Martina Bofulin and Nataša Rogelja[]
  4. More about the monuments of the National Liberation Movement and the Yugoslav Partisans in the Western region of Slovenia can be found in Hrobat Virloget and Čebron Lipovec (2017) [