Statues Don’t Teach History, They Applaud It

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“Statue of Cecil John Rhodes at UCT” in Cape Town by barbourians is licensed with CC BY 2.0. The statue was removed in April 2015.

Recently I saw a piece quoting the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Louise Richardson, saying removing from Oriel College the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, the colonial administrator and financier, risks hiding history. The UK Prime Minister has also expressed the view, in a series of Tweets noting, particularly in relation to the statue of Winston Churchill, that “statues teach us about our past, with all its faults”. Am I the only one who thinks this is nonsense?

Statues are not about history or pedagogy but commemoration. Should we commemorate people like Cecil John Rhodes today?

If the Vice-Chancellor is so concerned about history you can take down the statue and leave a large plinth explaining Rhodes brutal history and Oxford’s relationship with colonialism. Or better still teach history in one of the esteemed colleges, or make a podcast, a movie or build a website, or even consult a book. I don’t learn history from statues. Does anyone?

Statues tell us who society values and about the values of those commemorated. The whole idea of statues (at least traditionally) is to make these values and the venerable person a permanent feature, hence the granite and bronze. There is no place for Rhodes-like values today. Rhodes not only embodied white supremacy he literally defined it in paper he gave at Oxford in 1877, he wrote: “I contend that we [the white English] are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimen of human being, what an alteration there would be in them if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence”. The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, argues we should understand such views of the past in the context of the time. But surely the point is we need to consider the views of the past in the context of present, not the other way around. The real question is should we be venerating a man who held such views today? This is not a historical question, or debate about context, it is a contemporary question about aspiration, values and the morality we wish to endorse.

Watching the protestors in London recently allegedly protecting certain statues from Black Lives Matter protestors, made we wonder how much history these self-appointed protectors had learnt from said statues. If you asked them about the history of say Churchill they may know a selected fact or two, but they did not learn it from a lump of bronze but from school, TV, or a book, or more than likely hearsay or family. In other words, even for those who think statues have historical value the object has taught them no history or the associated history is selective. Thus proving the point they have no substantive relationship to history beyond the symbolic. In fact teaching history is seldom the purpose for erecting a statue in the first place. They are primarily about glorification and by extension societal meaning-making and value creation. By definition they are at best a form of selective history-making which reinforces the idea history is made by individual great White men (largely) and thus have limited or no pedagogic value. Statues in their stark simplicity distort rather than convey historical complexity.

Hence there is, in my view, no need for statues that were undoubtedly created in praise of people who by contemporary standards would be seen as abhorrent. By all means, for example, let us remember Cecil John Rhodes, and learn about him and what he did (positively and negatively) in schools and museums, but deifying his alleged grandeur in a statue in the public realm is a completely different matter. We can place such statues in museums, as some have argued, where the context can be explained, but to use tax revenue to maintain them so they can dominate public space while symbolically oozing outdated and racist belief-systems is not ethical, educational or inclusive.

Statues, particularly of certain political and social figures are not benign. By having them in public space, and given that statues have traditionally always been about veneration, they are always symbolically imparting a set of values. In the case of many colonial figures around the world these values were undoubtedly about superiority, exclusion and racism. In this context, we have to ask why are some intent on keeping them?

Another common retort is that if we start the process of removing statues, then where do we stop? This is quickly followed by, and given what happened in Bristol to the statue of the slaver Colston, accusation that those of us who say there is no place for such statues in the public realm are advocating mob-vandalism. Of course not. The real question is not where do you stop with removing statues, but how and where do we start the discussion about their removal.

Let’s be clear I am talking about statues in public space funded for their establishment and upkeep by public tax. So the public should have a say about what makes them comfortable or alienates them from the public space. This is not the same as saying the mob should decide, as I have been accused of doing when making similar comments on social media. We need to start with trusted and genuine local and national government processes, including proper consultation and debate how we use public space. From what I have read one of the reasons Colston ended up at the bottom of the harbour was that after multiple attempts to have a debate and resolve the issues at council level, the council dithered away for years not resolving the issue.

We all know governments can be terrible at these public consultations and debate, and I have my doubts, but when it comes to issues such as how the legacies of the past continue to impact on the identity and sense of place citizens have in society they have a duty to address this issue. It appears certainly in the US and UK, heads only momentarily pop out of the sand, when there is significant protest. If no one complains, then it is business as usual. Or if one quietly requests to discuss the state of the public realm in writing, it is shunted off to some committee never to emerge. Given the inaction on these issues in the past it is only right governments now feel, and should continue to feel, the pressure the Black Lives Matter has brought to the table, as well as other campaigners. The time has come for the government to be significantly more pro-active. The protests will continue to emerge until this happens.

It is not helpful for the British PM to say he will protect the statue of Churchill no matter what. Rather, he should be saying he will design a process to hear the views of the nation on the matter or more specifically a process in London-related boroughs. But seemingly he is afraid to have a genuine public debate because the majority of the government knows that this will open a discussion about colonialism and its legacy. The establishment, certainly in Britain, have wilfully denied the impact of colonialism for years or minimised it. Many of those sitting in the Lords are there because of inherited slave money as the Guardian covered. Britain has never made a wholesale apology for colonialism and the continued devastating impact of Empire. Instead, the PM himself has made widely misguided comments about colonialism in the past, largely arguing that Britain was good for Africa. Strangely not a view those who experienced Colonial rule or inherited the mess it left behind would largely share. In short, the government — and arguably the society at large — certainly in Britain — have chosen to exclude the negative impact of the colonial legacy from public debate and that is why this “statue” problem has arisen.

For Oxford it is the same and remember it too is funded largely by the public as with all UK universities. If they held a wide-ranging consultation with staff and students, and it was agreed Rhodes should stay, so be it from my perspective and at least then you know how the majority feel. If a group then ripped it down, we would know they were acting against the wishes of the majority. But I am sure if the full legacy of Rhodes was put on the table for open and honest debate, few would want to pay homage to him at the entrance of their school.

Of course, removing statues is not enough when we are discussing ongoing racism and intergenerational systemic exclusion of Black people globally. But it is symbolically important and hopefully leads to the acknowledgement of the past and its legacy in the present. In so doing we can begin the journey (albeit several hundreds years late) to shape a new set of values for our age. That is the real work to be done. If in 100 years the next generations no longer see these as right for society, which they probably will not, they must change again. That is called progress. But progress is never easy and there is no immediate resolution. But to be sure, opening public space to have a contested and tough discussion, and acknowledging the legacy of colonialism, is the only place to start. More denial, or continually saying anyone who wants to discuss this wishes to deny history or worse is a leftist lunatic or favours mob rule, will not make the catastrophic atrocities of the colonial past and their continued reverberations in the present miraculously go away.

Published Brandon Hamber on June 14, 2020. The article was published before Oxford took the decision to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the College.

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Professor of Peace at Ulster University in Northern Ireland. Medium is my popular writing space. Academic publications at brandonhamber.com

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