Cultural Heritage Revolution?

In the midst of global protests and demonstrations in connection with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and in the immediacy of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, statues to imperialists, racists and the traders of enslaved people are finally coming down.

In Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston was toppled on Saturday 6th June, rolled through the streets and tossed into the harbour. By Wednesday, several more statues have been taken removed, some with official sanction and watched by cheering crowds. More than 100 city councils across the UK have signed up to holding a review in order to consider removing statues, and even changing street names, and in America there is a growing hope that the end is nigh for racist memorials.

Many of these things have happened before, in some guise, some stories of which have appeared in this blog (including blogs on a Tiananmen Square statue, the Buller Statue in Exeter, and the Wellington Monument in Glasgow). But there seems to be something ‘different’ about this moment. Perhaps it is the context of Coronavirus?

The ‘traditional’ official answers tend revolve around platitudes towards disadvantaged communities – their pain is ‘felt’, their sense of injustice is ‘understood’ – but now is not (and never is) the ‘right time’. And, of course, any direct action from a crowd is always ‘completely wrong’!

So, when can the completely wrong be ‘right’? Does the removal of statues represent an ‘erasure of history’? And should we always champion the ‘Voice of the People’?

When the completely wrong is ‘right’?

In the first few hours following the (un)ceremonial dumping and dunking of Edward Colston in Bristol, many commentators lined up to tread the fine line between supporting the ‘sentiment’ of the protest, while deploring their actions. The Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, for instance both said that the statue ‘should have been removed a long time ago’, while also saying that its removal as part of the weekend protests was ‘wrong’. Such public figures do not want to be associated with ‘criminal acts’, but an official sanction of popular sentiment – perhaps even when this sentiment is expressed through direct action – has many precedents. Perhaps most famously, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or the removal of Soviet statues in much of eastern Europe in the 1990s was a moment that was widely endorsed by many official representatives. Queen Victoria was taken away in Dublin a century ago by the Dublin Corporation (and sold to the city of Sydney), while in 2012 a statue of Jimmy Saville was removed from a shopping centre in Glasgow. Perhaps more prosaic is the implicit (or even explicit) acceptance of what might be termed the creative critical engagement of many statues, such as the famous Wellington Monument in Glasgow or the (less famous) Buller Memorial in Exeter, which both habitually are allowed to be adorned with traffic cones.

A pandemic in which black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have suffered so badly together with an event of Police brutality in America, provides a context in which deeply ingrained and institutionalized systems of racism and systematic oppression can be acknowledged. This has prompted a more general reflective exercise about which elements of heritage are to be cherished – and given permission to remove symbolic statues.

Is this ‘Erasing History’?

Several commentators have decried what they see as an ‘erasure of history’, but we need to think about what ‘history’ is. Far from ‘destroying history’, David Olusoga has talked about this moment as one of creating history. What better way to commemorate the world of today than by ‘displaying’ an empty plinth? What better way of honouring the many millions of people who suffered as enslaved people, and who have been elided in standard historical narratives, than by removing the monuments to their oppressors? There is an interesting debate to be had as to whether the obliteration of these statues is better than some nuanced attempts to address them in other ways, Lisa Johnson, for instance, has written about the Dutch monument of JP Coen. Following a debate within the Dutch town of Hoorn (including a legal ‘trial’ for the local slave trader, JP Coen), a decision was made that the statue was ‘guilty’. Rather than remover the statue however, JP Coen’s ‘sentence’ included the addition of extra text at the monument (and a permanent Museum exhibition), which would make Coen’s guilt clear and be a constant reminder of this dark past in the present townscape. This certainly sounds positive, though Lisa Johnson reflects whether the focus on an obviously racist man who lived several centuries ago was just an easier (and ‘feel good’) thing to do; and that ongoing racism, exclusion and oppression (particularly with reference to the Dutch decolonization process in the 20th century) was largely ignored as a result. In many ways, this can be read as a warning – that we should not allow the present focus on the removal of monuments to nasty people who lived hundreds of years ago, mean that we (continue to) turn a blind eye to present injustices around us.

Is the ‘Voice of the People’ always right?

Reading some of the press reports and commentators about the destruction of the Edward Colston monument, one might think that the ‘Voice of the People’ is now always correct – that direct action of the crowd should never be critiqued. But a story I read this morning about how some people in a small town in Derbyshire has decided to protect what many people would see as a racist monument, provides a more critical prompt to this question. The justification for protecting the monument seems to be rooted in the idea that the wishes of ‘local people’ must always be correct – though the journalist also includes a quote from a local who wishes to remain anonymous who questions whether the ‘wishes of the local people’ are as clear as the would-be protectors of the monument would have us believe. This case reminds me strongly of many examples of local/community festivities that include practices of ‘blacking up’ – such as the Darkie Day Parade in Padstow, Cornwall. The idea of local-ness is sometimes difficult to challenge, since it tends to carry ideas of ‘authenticity’ and democracy – the sort of material that most liberal-minded people tend to cherish. Rather than ‘localness’ acting to insulate practices from outside scrutiny, however, I would argue that we should always be attendant to the politics and power structures that are inherent within any such practice, at whatever scale they operate. On occasion, therefore, I would say that it is OK to be critical of local ‘direct action’.

What now for Edward Colston?

The last few days have seen many suggestions for what should happen in Bristol now. The Mayor of Bristol does not seem interested in putting Edward Colston back on to his pedestal, but what should be there in his place – if anything? So far, the best suggestion that I have seen has come from the street-artist, Banksy. Perhaps unexpectedly, Banksy has argued that the state of Edward Colston should be fished out of the harbor and replaced back on to his plinth – only with the addition of some ropes and protesters-in-bronze, so as to create a permanent memorial to the removal of Edward Colston.


Local and Global Heritage of Protests – Tiananmen Square 30th Anniversary

30 years ago today tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and violently ended a pro-democracy protest. The 4thJune 30thanniversary is being talked about in the press, and being commemorated by many people; some publically and many, no doubt, through private reflection. Marked by various events and media stories in many parts of the world, in China, the anniversary is being marked-by-implication, through being a non-event, of heightened security in many city centres – a curtain of official silence alongside, perhaps, a dignified reflective silence among those who remember.

30 years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Exeter University. I was very much involved in campus politics – at the time, this meant the “Grants-not-Loans” campaign to protect the student grant and rights to benefits (the idea of paying tuition fees seemed ludicrous), together with a broader on-going commitment to stand up to Thatcherism and the rise of what I would find out later to be called Neo-liberalism. We had recently staged a sit-in, taking over the Vice Chancellor’s office; we had been on protest marches in Exeter, London and Manchester. In June 1989, the student-led protests in Beijing seemed to be part of our movement, protecting student rights, and seeking a progressive and more inclusive future – indeed, similar in nature to the protests from behind the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which were still some months away.

Towards the end of May and start of June in Exeter, I remember students gathering on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Student’s Union building. I am sure that we all knew that signing a petition in support of our brothers and sisters in Beijing was hardly going to change anything in itself, but somehow there was a genuine feeling of connection; that lighting a tea-light candle in a jam jar actually meant something – even if just a material and public display of solidarity with those protesters in China. Their struggle and our struggle were one.

But then, on the 4thJune 1989, everything seemed to change.

We came to understand that their struggle was of a different nature, and was something that could lead to death or imprisonment. At first sight, all that sitting around strumming on guitars, signing petitions and lighting candles seems incredibly stupid and banal. But, while those vigils on the lawn outside Devonshire House in Exeter were certainly naïve, they also made the connection with those in Tiananmen Square somehow momentarily more real. When the shock came, it seemed to be more painful, with a profound sense of bereavement. Naïve, we might have been but our tears were honest and heartfelt.

The construction of a monument to mark those feelings seemed to be a natural response. I don’t know whose idea it was – it doesn’t actually matter – but I think we all felt a sense of genuine investment and connection to that monument, which ‘sprang up overnight’. I remember that the University authorities were not keen on it at all and wanted it removed, but everyone knew that it would be unmoveable. At least for a few years….


Tiananmen Square memorial, on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Union Building, Exeter University

By definition, the student collective memory at any University is always fairly short-term and in constant flux. Most students are only at a University for the duration of their degree, and so by the mid 1990s, very few people at Exeter University could remember the circumstances of how the Tiananmen Square statue came to be where it was – nor why its location, on the lawn in front of the Union Building, was so significant. Furthermore, while the material nature of monuments is often seen as a very tangible and unchanging medium of commemoration, the Tiananmen Square memorial at Exeter University had a knack for changing! First, being made of textile, the flag deteriorated and fell off. It was replaced a few times, but with half-hearted protection, the figure very much transformed from being ‘Marianne’ in nature and representative of a cry for freedom and comradeship across the world, to being more baton-wielding ‘special forces’ in nature. Indeed, the loss of the flag seemed to run alongside the decrease in the angle of tilt in the figure’s arm, producing an ever more frightening pose.

040908 02 statue

Memorial Statue, late 1990s – still on the Devonshire House lawn, but in a more menacing pose

Then the memorial statue disappeared completely. The lawn was earmarked for development, but the University authorities would find a ‘suitable location’ for the memorial statue – nevermind that it was the actual location that was the key element in the memorial, much more so than the now-transformed warrior-like statue.

Perhaps with an eye towards diplomacy, with the University actively seeking Chinese partnerships and wanting to attract more and more Chinese students to take courses in Exeter, the University’s ‘suitable location’ turned out to be a field on the edge of the main campus. The statue is still visible from the road, but there are no paths to the statue and very few regular passers by. The memorial now stands as a largely forgotten curio. It is on the Exeter University Sculpture Trail, though without reference to the connection between student protests in the UK and China, which meant so much back in 1989. And the lawn area that once stood just at the bottom of the entrance steps to the Union Building is now an outdoor seating area of a Costa Coffee shop. The memorial statue itself seems to be an empty vessel, though I guess it is still representative of the very real and profound connection that some people in Exeter felt with people across the world 30 years ago.


The memorial statue, now relocated.







Another Chapter in the Continuing Life History of the General Buller Statue in Exeter, UK

I thought I had done with writing about General Buller following my initial reflections (here) in November 2014, and further thoughts (here) in July 2015, following the critical intervention (or ‘guerrilla memorialisation’) event that took place that Summer. In tracing the ongoing ‘biography’ of the General Buller monument, I argued that it can be seen both as a meaningful vehicle of contemporary politics, at which a critical and creative engagement with the past can occur, and also as a dynamic site, with an open-ended life history that has time depth. The General Buller Statue, therefore, is never ‘cast in stone’. The status ‘does work’, serving as a site of contemporary debate; it can engage, as well as be engaged with.

These observations accord with debates and critical comment about many statues around the world today, most recently through the high profile events and deliberations surrounding the fate of many statues and monuments to the Confederacy in the USA’s southern states, as well as debates in recent years about the fate of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa (or Oxford – see here). The question over whether we should manage such ‘difficult heritage’ by removing monuments, adding extra plaques, or leaving them be has certainly had a high public profile, matched by some interesting academic debate, such as Lisa Johnson’s paper on JP Coen’s statue in Holland. Indeed, the broader issue of how to deal with contentious pasts in the present formed a central theme of a recent Book Review forum in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers that dealt with David Lowenthal’s Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited. Whichever side of the fence one sits – whether arguing for the removal or preservation of a statue – most of these debates tend to focus on the subject matter of the statue or monument: should we or shouldn’t we ‘memorialise’ General Buller (or Cecil Rhodes, or General Robert E. Lee etc.)?

But late at night on 10th June 2017 in Exeter, a young man called Tom Calloway, aged 18, fell from the General Buller statue and died.

Exeter_Buller_Tom memorial1

Since Tom Calloway’s tragic death this Summer, there has been a more-or-less constant effort in maintaining his ‘presence’ through memorialisation activity at the site. How-ever ‘spontaneously’ this activity began, this seems to be more than the ‘spontaneous memorial’ practices that one often finds at the sites of recent tragedy. The statue is located directly outside Exeter College, and so many of Tom’s colleagues, friends, teachers and classmates regularly come past ‘his memorial’. And where does it leave General Buller?

Exeter_Buller_Tom memorial2

At the time of his accident, Tom Calloway was undertaking the ‘tradition’ of placing a traffic cone on General Buller’s head. This playful and creative engagement with formal memorial sites has a long tradition and many parallels, perhaps most famously at the Duke of Wellington’s horse statue in Glasgow. It was Glasgow City Council’s concern about the potential for accidents to happen (and threatened plans to prevent people from climbing the statue) that brought out the wider public’s fondness for seeing the traffic cone donned on the Duke of Wellington. Public heritage debate demanded the Duke of Wellington be adorned with his ‘customary traffic cone’, and so Glasgow City Council dropped their security plans and tacitly turned-a-blind-eye to nocturnal activities with traffic cones. In Exeter, General Buller has been adorned with traffic cones and other paraphernalia for as long as I can remember, whether in playful jest or as purposeful critique, but what will happen now?

In terms of representing something meaningful for the people who pass by every day, General Buller is now a site for remembering Tom Calloway. Debates over whether and how we should remember General Buller’s role in the Boer War; whether he was a ‘war criminal’ to be put on trial, or an embarrassing ancestor to be kept hidden from view, now seem of secondary importance. In its most affective guise, the statue no longer memorialises General Buller at all.