Toppling Symbols: Statues, the Colonial Past and the Public Space

Toppling Symbols: Statues, the Colonial Past and the Public Space

The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. The ground is covered with Black Lives Matter placards.

Retrieved via Wikimedia Commons. Originally published on Twitter by Caitlin Hobbs.

The actions against statues of historic figures involved in colonialism and its derivatives highlight the importance of critically confronting our past and rethinking our public space.

Over the last years, I have dedicated some reflections to statues in blog posts. I wrote about the massive Stalin statue that was destroyed in Prague – the Museum of Communism dedicates a small section to it. I mentioned the huge statue honouring William I in Koblenz, which is not even the original one (destroyed in 1945), but was erected in the 1990s. I reported how, in 2017 at the Kulturpolitischer Bundeskongress in Berlin, one participant emphatically expressed how much she would like a Bismarck statue in Hamburg to be blown up. Around the time I participated in the Public History Summer School in Wroclaw, Poland, in July 2018, statues honouring Confederate figures were eliciting debates in the US. During a roundtable discussion of the summer school, fellow discussants and I shortly debated the issue of these statues and the role of historians. I do not remember the exact question that was asked, but I basically answered that I would not know how to react, and that maybe I would support the removal of these statues.

Statues as carriers of meanings

Thinking about my answer in hindsight, I missed the opportunity to add deeper reflections on such statues symbolising a difficult and, for many people, painful past. Maybe it was my lack of experience, maybe the fact that I had not given much thought to the topic. Statues are more than crafted stone or metal. They convey meanings, they carry symbols, they are meant to elicit feelings. They are erected not only for what they depict as such. A statue of Robert E. Lee or Nathan Bedford Forrest in the US, of Leopold II in Belgium, or of Edward Colston in the UK is more than what it visualises. Such statues honour and commemorate historic figures, deemed important by some people at the time the statues were erected – but not by all. Meanings of monuments need to be considered synchronically and diachronically. They can have different meanings to different people at a given time, and their meanings can change over time following a re-evaluation and sensitization.

When it comes to monuments, of which statues are only a sub-type, acts of creation and acts of destruction both send strong messages. No statue is built without intentions. No statue is toppled without intentions. The removal is a strong sign that the meaning(s) carried by a statue is/are not desired anymore, that they are not in tune with the values of a society or a community, that they are not bearable on the background of the historical knowledge, that they are not representative of the various communities that live in a country, in a city, or in a neighbourhood.

The question whether statues should be removed has elicited innumerable comments and reflections in media outlets, on social media, and among colleagues, family and friends. Debates on whether people have the right to deface statues are certainly legitimate, as part of a democratic exchange. Yet, I think that defacements and topplings of statues - or monuments in general - need to be seen in their context. No person with the slightest sense of the past would agree that drawing swastikas on Jewish graves is a great thing to do. It is an act of deliberate disrespect, an act of anti-Semitism. The argument that the erection of monuments honouring people like Colston, Leopold II or Lee was somehow “normal” at some time in the past is a bold over-simplification – in the case of Leopold II vividly refuted in a recent open letter signed by historians. What gives us the right to say what was normal and what was not? Even during the period of colonial empires, critical voices existed in the West. For colonised peoples, the state of imposed colonial subservience was not a normality. Certainly, the argument of “normality” was not deemed valid when the public space was purged of Nazi symbols after the end of the Third Reich, or Lenin statues toppled after the end of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, or a Saddam Hussein representation removed in Baghdad in 2003. We cannot just resort to cherry-picking. Certainly not for symbols of the West’s colonial project.

Rethinking our public space

Defacing symbols of colonialism and its derivatives is an expression of legitimate criticism. In some cases, it might be regarded as an act of artistic appropriation. This has been done, for instance, by the artist collective Richtung22 at a primary school that I had attended in my childhood, named after Nicolas Cito (1866-1949), a Luxembourger who participated in the Belgian colonial experience in Congo. Today, a small monument on the school premises remembers him. Recently, the activists of Richtung22 attached a panel to the monument, with only the round plaque representing Cito’s head being visible, but relegated behind a barred opening, alluding to a prison window. This was an artistic appropriation of a monument in a public space. I do not remember that, as pupils, we had been told who Nicolas Cito was. A small text on the new panel remembers the 5,500 forced labourers who died during a railroad construction – of which Cito was the chief-engineer.

Why should we expect that every statue in public space would attract positive emotions? Why should activists and local communities not be allowed to criticise and deface monuments reminiscent of colonialism, slavery, racism? Why should interest groups or governments be allowed to erect statues of people representing oppressive and brutal regimes, but the governed people are not allowed to deface them? When a racist or colonial symbol is exhibited in public space, we should expect that it attracts disagreement. Indeed, we need to rethink our public space.

If public education taught more about colonial regimes, their racism, violence, and plundering, we might have a different debate. The fact that some commentators defend the existence of these statues and criticize protesters is the expression of a historical understanding that rejects a critical confrontation with the colonial past, or simply downplays its effects. This understanding has a tradition, and it has shaped public debates for years. It is the kind of historical understanding that guides, for example, the works of the conservative historian Niall Ferguson.1 It is the kind of historical understanding that underpinned former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s (unrealised) project of a Maison de l’histoire de France in 2010 – which was heavily criticised.2

The importance of historical sensitization

Some commentators have decried the recent vandalism of statues as revisionism. Yet when statues honour men involved in the colonial project, is this not in itself a kind of historic revisionism? These statues have not been erected to show the perspective of the oppressed. Referring to the removal of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, Aditya Iyer observed that it was “an act that didn’t attack history, but instead corrected how we write it.”3

If we think that statues are the main source of our historical education, then we have a serious problem as a society. Removing or defacing a symbol of colonialism is not historical revisionism or erasure. It is merely making the public space less racist. It shows that people seriously reflect on the meanings of these statues. Certainly, the actions against the monuments have already contributed to sensitization. I had never heard of Edward Colston before. In Belgium, the defaced statues of Leopold II have elicited debates on the country’s colonial past.

We need to learn about our past and confront it, but the narratives we construct should not be edulcorated accounts. We cannot be selective and exclude aspects we are not pleased with. I think there is still an incredible lack of sensitization and education concerning the names and objects shaping our public spaces. My personal anecdote of Nicolas Cito is a good example of this situation. We do not even see what lies before our eyes. This does not only pertain to monuments, but also to street and square names.

Dealing with the statues

As the protests were unfolding, I was wondering how historians can contribute to the debates. I was by far not the only one and attitudes vary. Historians can provide context and critical reflections on monuments. They can work with communities and produce knowledge about the public spaces in which these communities spend their time. It is not our job as historians to decide whether statues should be removed. Society as a whole and local communities in particular should decide on their fate. Yet historians are part of society, they are citizens and they have opinions. Hiding ourselves as historians behind a veil of detachment and objectivity is only another way to elude the inconvenient situation of positioning ourselves. Personally, I could not defend the existence - in a "pure" state - of the Colston in Bristol, of all the Leopold IIs in Belgium, or of any statue linked to a colonial past and to racism.

What should happen with these statues, though, is another question to which I do not have a definite answer. Removing these statues and placing them in museums by providing critical context, as some have suggested, is not a good idea, even if it might be based on good intentions. Not every statue that we do not want to see in public space can be placed in the exhibition area of a museum, and I do not think it is useful to store them away in a depot like an undesired decorative item we put in a box. We might go further, claiming that hiding them away while being preserved with public funding, and without dialogue with local communities, is another way of negating communities’ right in a decisionmaking that concerns their public space.

The historian Jonas Andersen reflected on alternatives to the removal. He suggested an “extended art” that could attract attention in public spaces and spark a reflective process:

Gefragt ist hier eventuell vielmehr eine erweiternde Kunst, die es versteht, Aufmerksamkeit im öffentlichen Raum zu schaffen, für ein Innehalten zu sorgen, das Auftakt eines längeren gedanklichen Prozesses werden kann.4

A more creative use of monuments could effectively subvert the original meaning. It would show that a society is capable to confront its colonial past and critically re-evaluate its public space. It would let local communities, artists, and activists take the matter into their hands and symbolically and artistically appropriate controversial monuments. When I think about the “re-evaluation” by Richtung22 of the Cito-monument, I would very much like it to be left with its “update”.