Don’t hide statues away to be forgotten

Taking down statues and hiding our history is often not the answer to the problem they represent, argues historian Hayden Thorne

In the midst of the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, participants have called for the removal of many problematic public monuments, both in New Zealand and overseas. It has become clear many of the figures depicted in these monuments have a conflicted history: links to slavery, oppression, racism.

This is nothing new to historians, who have long understood history as a contested subject. History is not, as some would suggest, a linear and objective path. Our understanding of history is constantly changing and evolving, shaped by new evidence and new understandings of past events.

Statues and monuments form part of our understanding of history in two important ways: they record or symbolise important people and moments in history, often in a way that reflects the time and process through which they were erected; they also serve as a representation of how history was viewed at the time these monuments were erected. In the latter sense, they provide a visible and significant representation, often in a highly visible place, of how a previous generation viewed the past.

Many figures depicted in our statues and monuments are problematic. They have troubled histories that often pair achievement with failure, success with oppression, or progress with backwardness. Tearing down these monuments is not, however, always the answer to these issues.

Nobody, I’m sure, would suggest that we should have a statue of Adolf Hitler, just as I’m sure nobody would disagree with erecting a statue to Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi. In between the extremes, however, there is not always a right answer.

Historical figures are rarely perfect, and rarely purely evil. Instead, most have complicated and challenging stories we can only properly understand through education. Education is also required to understand the selection of these figures, who often represent a narrow band of humanity. An understanding of why those figures were chosen at that time provides a valuable insight into a previous generation’s understanding of the past.

It is promising to see, out of the current movement, a debate around these historical figures. Before we commit to taking down these statues and monuments, we must pause. We must stop, think, discuss and educate ourselves.

Taking down statues and hiding our history is often not the answer to this problem. Instead, why not discuss moving statues to more appropriate locations? Why not add information around these monuments to present a more complete view of these figures? Take this opportunity to learn and understand the context in which the events commemorated by the monument occurred.

Equally importantly, we must think and learn about the absent figures. Which people and events are not commemorated in public monuments and why is this the case? Absences can tell us as much about people’s understanding of history as the figures that were chosen. Absences can also show us where there are opportunities for future commemorations: to add these missing groups to our historical understanding as well as to our public record.

This debate is playing out overseas as well, with Confederate flags in the US, slave traders in the UK and many other objects and stories all over the world.

A statue of Robert Baden-Powell in the UK has come under attack, because of his links to racism and homophobia. Yet Baden-Powell counts among his achievements the founding of the worldwide Scouts movement.

In a New Zealand context, Captain Cook made significant contributions to navigation and exploration, but is part of a legacy of colonialism and poor treatment of indigenous peoples that continues to play a role in society to this day.

There is no right answer to how we should remember these figures – they come with significant achievements and often major failings. The only answer, for me, is that neither aspect of these figures should be forgotten. History must be allowed to be told in full – warts and all.

Let discussion and debate take the place of anger and resentment. Let us use this opportunity as a time to change the way we view history; to shift our understanding of the past and to give future generations the opportunity to see history from a different perspective.

New Zealand is blessed with a rich and vibrant historical literature. Historians in New Zealand have produced a great many works that explore our difficult history – so before you pull down that statue, take the time to learn what it represents, to talk about it, and most importantly to learn from it.

As a society, the best way forward is to learn from the mistakes of the past – it may be a cliché, but it is true that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”.

Let our statues and monuments provoke debate and challenge us to think deeply about our past – let us not hide them all away to be forgotten.

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