Rebalancing the memorial landscape


Minna Muhlen-Schulte reflects on the current debate about statues.

As the removal of Confederate statues increases in the wake of Charlottesville, the questions proliferate about public history, the politics of commemoration and our role as professional historians in these debates. What happens when the meaning of a memorial or statue shifts between generations and becomes not only offensive but a symbol of oppression? Do you remove, relocate or reinterpret it? Does it erase history when these statues are removed? On a practical level what happens to the objects – are they destroyed or housed in collections elsewhere? Beyond the United States the push to remove statues has surfaced recently with the Rhodes statue at Oxford University considered by opponents as an unwanted symbol of British imperial legacy in Africa; and locally in Bathurst, N.S.W. where the explorer George Evans looms in bronze over an unnamed Aboriginal man at his knees, in a region where some of the worst of colonial violence was perpetrated. But so far both these statues have been retained.

Amy Greenberg, Professor of American History at Penn State University, supports the removal of Confederate statues but recognises it is “possible to argue that obliterating evidence of ‘bad’ historical events or ‘offensive’ people might in the end be counterproductive, allowing a collective amnesia that the bad events ever happened.” It is also possible that by removing the statue you may lose the opportunity to have a difficult part of history interpreted in a public space and highlight the story the statue occludes. On the other hand, as New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said, “asking African Americans — or anyone else — to drive by property that they own; occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse and absurd.”

When working in Mildura, I realised how the absence of civic markers could also inflict pain. In a series of statues and plaques the town celebrates the more benign figures of the Chaffey brothers, their irrigation scheme and whimsically their innovation of dried fruit. However, there is nothing in the townscape to suggest the world heritage significance of neighbouring Mungo Lake, traditional management of the Murray River for thousands of years and the continuity of Aboriginal cultural life in this community. This was partially rectified by inviting Barkindji artist Badger Bates and other Aboriginal community members to interpret their stories in sculpture and signage along the prominent riverfront precinct.

The life of a monument and its ability to be animated, ignored or reinterpreted was further highlighted by the 1917: Great Strike exhibition at Carriageworks. The City of Sydney commissioned artist Tom Nicholson who imagined a monument for industrial workers and explored the way music and text can mobilise architectural forms that already exist. Nicholson notes the power of ritual in activating monuments, they have the capacity to be the mustering point for a rally or riot as sinister as a Charlottesville. A perfect example is ‘Silent Sam’ at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill – a memorial to students who died fighting for the Confederate States Army. In 1967, poet John Beecher “debated” Silent Sam, reading to the statue from his book of poetry To Live and Die in Dixie. In April 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the monument was vandalized.  In the early 1970s, the monument was the site of several demonstrations by the Black Student Movement, in 1992 students gathered to protest after Los Angeles police officers were found not guilty in the death of Rodney King and most recently it has become a beacon of graffiti about the Black Lives Matter movement. The mayor is now pushing to remove the statue. But will these events, moments and protests so inextricably linked to Statue also be lost to the campus and create a new silence? Is there a way to re-balance the memorial landscape to engender greater understanding? And perhaps can we as professional historians work with artists to reimagine public spaces that commemorate the complexity of history?


Image credit: Silent Sam, circa April 7, 1968. From the Hugh Morton Photographic Collection, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archive, Wilson Library, UNC Chapel Hill.

Colonial Frontier Massacres: mapping new forms of history


Jennifer Debenham discusses the website, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872, which was formally launched at the annual Australian Historical Association’s conference in July by Indigenous Senior Lecturer, Dr Stephanie Gilbert, from the University of Newcastle’s Wollotuka Institute.

The launch session was introduced by project leader, Professor Lyndall Ryan. Dr William (Bill) Pascoe, who designed the website, focused his presentation on how he developed the site as a digital humanities project. He was followed by Dr Mark Brown, the project’s digital cartographer, who explained how mapping technologies can be used to make a visual representation of historical data. Finally, Dr Jennifer Debenham gave an insight into how the messiness of the historical narrative needed to be reconstructed in such a way that its complexity and nuanced narrative threads would fit with, what initially appeared to be inflexible, data structures required by the mapping application. The project was funded with an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant and has taken three years to achieve the current website.

Initially the project was to cover the whole of Australia; however, the number of violent attacks on Aboriginal people was underestimated. To date Victoria and Tasmania are the most complete. We hope to continue working on adding more sites in New South Wales (including the ACT) and Queensland. Then we will focus on South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. The painstaking research has slowly pieced together details of each incident, bringing together a more intact picture of the Australian frontier.

Within two days of the launch the site had an audience reach of 28 million through newsfeeds on television and newspapers and on other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. What our Google metrics tell us is that the site went global, indicating the site is user friendly and there is a thirst for this type of information. Most visitors spend between one to 30 minutes on the site and after more than eight weeks, it continues to attract 10 to 12 people at any one time. People are now wanting to get to the truth of the violence of Australia’s colonisation.

Most worthwhile has been the public reaction. Although there have been detractors, these have been remarkably small in number and are mainly concerned with the incident at Risdon Cove in Tasmania, a long-contested site. Many more people have contacted us letting us know of its value, particularly those in education (teachers) and the government. Many others have offered advice, knowledge of different aspects of an incident, and have been generous in offering materials to add to the existing evidence. Some have pointed out errors in location and have asked why some sites were not included given the local evidence of incidents seems strong. We are addressing these queries.

The site engages the public in ways that texts do not. It points to the need for historical narratives and data to be presented in visual, interactive and easily available formats. To reach the broader public, professional historians must consider presenting our work in new ways in this digital age.

Image: Professor Ryan with the map, Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872

Modernist designers in Sydney: Eva Buhrich


Sydney Living Museums’ exhibition at the Museum of Sydney, The Moderns: European Designers in Sydney comes at a time when the city’s built environment and architectural heritage are very much in the spotlight.  Nicole Cama takes a look at one of those designers, Eva Buhrich.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, a number of architects and designers travelled to Sydney from Europe, bringing their modernist sensibilities with them. Harry Seidler ,probably one of Australia’s most well known architects, was one of them. He became the creative genius behind buildings like the MLC Centre, Australia Square, Grosvenor Place, Rose Seidler House and many more.

Less well known but equally fascinating is Eva Buhrich, born Eva Bernard, in Nuremberg, Germany in 1915. Eva was the daughter of Jewish parents who supported her training and career as an architect. She met Hugh Buhrich, also an architect, at university in Munich. The couple lived in Berlin before moving to Switzerland and then England in the late 1930s. To escape the growing threat of war, they moved to Australia.

In Sydney, Eva worked as a draftsperson and as a freelance designer in partnership with Hugh in the 1940s. According to Hugh, Eva gave up architectural design because of the poor wages she received compared to her male counterparts. By the 1950s Eva was working as a writer and architectural commentator, as well as a graphic designer and editor. She was a champion of modernist design, publishing in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Women’s Weekly, House and Garden and more. She died in March 1976.

Eva was probably the first woman to write about architecture and design under her own name for a major Australian newspaper. Her only book, a guide to creating Patios and Outdoor Living Areas, an area of design that fascinated her, was published in 1973.

The Buhrichs’ home in Castlecrag was designed and built by Hugh Buhrich for their family between 1968-72, and is considered to be one of the most iconic and influential in Sydney modernist design. You can explore the house as it was in 2004 on the Sydney Living Museums’ website here.

For more about Eva Buhrich, read architectural historian Bronwyn Hanna’s entry in the Dictionary of Sydney.

The exhibition The Moderns: European Designers in Sydney is on at the Museum of Sydney until
26 November as part of Sydney Living Museums’ program of Modernist related events, A Modernist Season.

Image: Advice from Eva Buhrich on making the most of the space in your air raid shelter, from The Home: an Australian quarterly, Vol. 21 No. 9 (2 September 1940) p 54 – 55 via Trove

With thanks to the Dictionary of Sydney for permission to re-post this article, which formed the basis for Nicole Cama’s chat with Nic Healey on 2SER Breakfast.