All around the world, we are seeing the removal or modification of tangible cultural heritage, either by forceful means or by government action. This global debate was triggered by the abrupt and harrowing murder of George Floyd in the USA at the hands of a man employed by the state to protect him. It provoked mass protests around the world highlighting the much overdue need to adequately address systemic racial inequality, institutional racism and controversial heritage.
The statues at the centre of this debate across Europe are predominantly statues of men involved in Europe’s much-celebrated imperial exploits. Figures such as Cecil Rhodes, Robert Milligan, and Winston Churchill have come under intense scrutiny across the UK following the dramatic removal of Edward Colston from a plinth in Bristol. We, as a society, now find ourselves at a time of reckoning as we question the statuary on our streets. We need to consider the role that cultural heritage has within our communities and whether removing these statues is a removal of history.
Cultural heritage is an expression of the ways of life of a community, which is passed on from generation to generation. Tangible heritage such as statues and monuments denotes the physical representation of the values, beliefs and traditions of that community. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights have reiterated that cultural rights are essential for the maintenance of human dignity and positive social interaction between individuals and communities.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) further affirm that cultural heritage should be recognised and acknowledged for the benefit of present and future generations. Thus, ideally the statues in the public realm should reflect, and be a source of, communal bonds in which all members of the community (local communities and the wider state) can identify with and protect. So what should we do with controversial heritage – cultural heritage that does not promote human dignity and social cohesion?
Two communities having this dialogue at the moment are Denbigh and St Asaph in North Wales. Both have had to consider the fate of two statues commemorating a lesser-known historical figure – ‘Denbigh’s Son’ – Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley has come under scrutiny due to his involvement in colonialism as he explored central Africa and worked as an agent of King Leopold II (whose own statue was removed in Antwerp for his genocidal policies in Africa). Both statues are surprisingly recent only having been created in 2011 in the hope to attract tourism.
At the time there was a letter of protest against the erection of the statue arguing that his expeditions have shaped the racial inequality still rife in todays society. Despite this, the statues were still commissioned and displayed. Local artist, Wanda Zyborska, holds an annual protest of the Denbigh statue by re-veiling it in black rubber; the rubber is particularly symbolic given the exploitation of rubber in the Congo. During the recent Black Lives Matter protests, protesters turned their back to Stanley and “took a knee” (a symbolic protest now synonymous to the BLM movement first initiated by Colin Kaepernick in 2016).
On 24th June both councils decided the fate of these statues. Despite persistent pressure from the community to remove them both councils effectively voted to keep the statues in place (for now). St Asaph Council, whose statue depicting Stanley is an obelisk portraying his life, opted to modify the obelisk with a plaque depicting a more neutral explanation of history.
A working party will be set up to draft the wording that would better reflect today’s climate. This is something that Bristol Council tried in 2018 to address Colston’s role in the slave trade. However, this caused further controversy as it was felt the plaque laundered Colston’s enslavement of black people. Denbigh Council, on the other hand, voted (6-5) that the statue depicting Stanley standing with an outstretched hand would not be removed, but would open up the debate to a public consultation. This consultation will take place once lockdown restrictions are lifted in Wales. Both decisions here have the opportunity to promote much needed dialogue. St Asaph Council has the power to enable the community to decide collectively what is an appropriate and accurate explanation of history. Denbigh Council also has the opportunity to start dialogue and reassess whether the statue has a place within their community.
Other communities have already made attempts to address these questions. The University of Liverpool has agreed to rename a building named after former Prime Minister William Gladstone, for his links to the slave trade. The statue of slave owner Robert Milligan was removed by the Canal and River Trust in London as a way of recognising the wishes of the community. Throughout America, statues of Confederates have been removed. Likewise, Alaskan and Australian communities are deciding the fate of statues of Captain James Cook for his links to colonialism. In London, a commission will be set up to review and improve diversity across London’s public realm to ensure that the landmarks suitably reflect the capital’s achievements and diversity.
The removal of these statues has been met with severe opposition in certain quarters. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has argued that the removal of any further statue is the erasure of our history. This is the predominant argument that underpins a lot of the discussion surrounding these statues and it is something that needs addressing.
Firstly, arguing that the removal of these statues is an erasure of our history implies a role that statues do not necessarily achieve. As David Olusoga correctly states, statues are not particularly good at telling us our history. History is complicated. Pure objectivity does not exist in accounts of the past and there are many interpretations of it. Resisting the removal of these statues is resisting the realities of the new (more objective) understanding of the past. By removing the statues we are no longer giving legitimacy to a history that they infer. British exceptionalism has allowed us to portray our history in a whitewashed manner – ignorant to the mass oppression of minority groups.
Secondly, in some instances the intentional destruction of cultural heritage can indeed be to erase history. Throughout history, cultural heritage has been destroyed in this way because it is an identity marker of a group of people. It is an assault upon a peoples’ identity in an aim to demoralise, disenfranchise and humiliate them, as seen during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. In some cases, the destruction of heritage is part of a broader plan of genocide – to erase the very existence of a group of people and remove them from the annals of history.
However, this is not what is happening here. This is not an assault upon our cultural heritage but a call to acknowledge present day racism and structural inequality by reconsidering the past. There have been calls for the removal of these statues for years. They are not being removed with the intent to erase history or to culturally cleanse a people. Instead, people within the community are demonstrating that there is no space for these symbols of intolerance and hate within the fabric of their community and they reject them. Regardless of the reasoning behind the creation of these controversial statues, we must focus on the message they send in the present day.
It is a message – seen by many of – endorsing colonial iconography and white supremacy. It validates a history of intolerance and grave violations of human rights. By removing these statues of the likes of Colston and Stanley local communities are not removing them as historical figures, nor are they removing them from the historical record – they are simply removing the idea that they are worthy of celebration within the fabric of our culture.
The on-going global pandemic has gifted us with the ability to stop and evaluate the way in which we live our lives at an individual level but also as a community. We need to take this gift and ask ourselves these difficult questions in an open, inclusive dialogue. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to how communities deal with their past. This is apparent in the different approaches taken so far across the UK (and the wider world). Whilst the blanket removal of some statues is welcome, it does stifle the opportunity for much needed dialogue.
I believe dialogue is needed in all communities. It will enable communities to collectively understand their history and cultural heritage exposing why these particular statues are symbols of intolerance and oppression. Cultural heritage is supposed to outlive many human generations and as a result, in considering the public setting in which these statues are placed, communities should be focusing on what message they want, as a community, to send to future generations. We need to consider why we celebrate the figures that we do and whether they merit our reverence – a dialogue Denbigh and St Asaph have been afforded at the moment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sinéad is currently a PhD candidate at The University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on transitional justice responses to the intentional destruction of cultural heritage in post-conflict states. Her research interests include: minority rights, cultural rights, cultural heritage, transitional justice and international humanitarian law.