From statues of Lenin in Ukraine to the Confederate generals in the United States, from slavers in Britain to Captain Cook in Australia, debate has raged about what these figures stand for, historically and within our modern cultural identity.
There has been much discussion about what to do with Confederate monuments in the United States, most of which were erected between 1900 and 1920; the statues were installed during the Jim Crow era for the express purpose of reminding an increasingly upwardly mobile African-American population of the past.
We in Australia have a different history, violent in other ways. Many of the statues to the white men that conquered this country were erected in the 19th century, when there was a different understanding of our past. They were erected in celebration but have now rightly become highly contentious as we reckon with that past.
As a historian, however, I question the ethics of removing them from public view. Sarah Maddison, from the University of Melbourne, has advocated the removal of all colonial statues in Australia, claiming they “do not educate, they do not inform, they do not move us closer to justice. They are a foil used to help erase colonial violence and replace it with tales of virtue and heroism”.
But I fear that by removing these statues, we obliterate the history of these figures from our memory. We are reducing them to the very thing that others have so rightly objected to for so long – silence. We should have learnt the lesson that forgetting the past is not a particularly useful way to reconcile our history with the present. And yet somehow, we have to make peace with the fact that the sins of the past have helped forge the modern day.
We are left with a dilemma that cannot be easily resolved. And defacing statues can work both ways. As we have seen, statues to indigenous leaders and monuments to past atrocities have also been defaced and mutilated.
As Julia Baird has suggested, we might meet the need to recognise the crimes of the past by transforming these colonial statues, by repurposing them, for the present. It’s a technique that was used by artists in the Americas during the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus, when statues of Columbus were, among other things, doused in red paint to portray the blood on his hands.
The application of paint appends an alternative history to the statue. Metaphorically bloodied and mutilated statues can also open up a space for new possibilities, and for greater questioning of the past. An empty plinth, on the other hand, unless it is filled, is susceptible to becoming a stigma of victimhood. One which in decades to come will speak nothing of history.