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.

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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.

I-cone-oclasm revisited: General Buller and his assorted Guerrillas

I have written previously about the heritage of traffic cones and statues, (November 2013) suggesting that the artful placing of traffic cones on statues should perhaps be understood as just the most recent phase of a statue’s ‘life history’, or ‘biography’. Indeed, some statues really require to be adorned with a traffic cone in order to convey a sense of being a relevant part of contemporary memorial cultures. Perhaps the Duke of Wellington Monument in St. George Square, Glasgow is the most famous example of this. Following public outcry and a social media campaign, Glasgow City Council was forced to acknowledge the relevance of the traffic cone. Perhaps more interestingly, however, both the authorised and unauthorised narratives of Wellington seemed to come together during the Commonwealth Games in the Summer of 2014, when the ‘statue-with-traffic-cone’ enjoyed a semi-official status; its image adorning mugs, T-shirts and a wide range of publications.


Following the work of Alan Rice (2012), maybe these practices can be seen as a sort of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ – perhaps acting to subvert the hegemonic meaning of the monument as an item of ‘Authorised Heritage Discourse’? But are there any further options, perhaps which can be more obviously and purposively ‘critical’?

The equestrian statue of General Buller is Exeter’s own version of Glasgow’s Wellington – often seen sporting a traffic cone on his head. One could argue that this practice subverts the pomposity and authoritative overtones that are imbued within the statue – but maybe the traffic cone inadvertently acts to tame what might be a more critical story? Arguably, the traffic cone takes attention away from General Buller; you end up focussing on the traffic cone rather than the equestrian figure. Who was General Buller? And why is there a statue of him in Exeter?


General Sir Redvers Buller was born in Crediton, about 5 miles north of Exeter, in 1839, and fought in a series of British Imperial conflicts during the later 19th century, winning the Victoria Cross during the Zulu War. He led British Forces for a time during the 2nd Boer War (1899-1900), and was criticised by many at the time for what were seen as a series of military setbacks. Many commentators since the war, however, have argued that Buller was a bit of a scapegoat for the initial failure, on the part of the British Forces, to grasp a new style of warfare that the Boer War heralded. Indeed, some military historians see him as an innovator, who developed new tactics during this thoroughly ‘modern’ war. By recognising how Buller developed some effective ‘counter-insurgency’ tactics in the task of overcoming Boer resistance, maybe the heritage of General Sir Redvers Buller can provide a field of critical engagement to be further examined, rather than ignored? Does the traffic cone get in the way of this critical re-appraisal?

Perhaps one can argue that this statue commemorates a key moment in the countering of imperial power; one of the first moments when a modern global superpower was humbled by a group of farmers, workers and peasants using guerrilla tactics. Through this statue, therefore, maybe you can trace the resonance of Ireland, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan?

One of the key technological advancements through which British Forces eventually triumphed during the Boer War was through the massive deployment of barbed wire. Developed in the latter part of the 19th century in North America, the cheapness, ease of use and ubiquity of this device soon made it a key means through which conflicts have been propagated ever since (see Reviel Netz’s excellent 2004 book, Barbed Wire: an Ecology of Modernity). Barbed wire was also handy for the building of concentration camps – the world’s first civilian ‘concentration camps’ were built by the British in South Africa, during the Boer War.

Buller is a key developer of war tactics that have dominated many of the 20th and 21st centuries’ conflicts. And, arguably, he inadvertently paved the way for trench warfare, concentration camps and gulags. As a master tactician of counter-insurgency operations, perhaps the use of ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics for General Buller is really quite an appropriate gesture.