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.

14 thoughts on “Rebalancing the memorial landscape”

  1. Hi Minna
    I very much concur with your suggestions and considerations here. I’m very wary of effacing public artworks, however celebratory or hegemonic. It not only damages the fabric of our past, but also diminishes opportunities to understand it on its own terms. As you suggest, I’m in favour of reinterpreting, complementing or re-animating monuments. These far more creative responses allow other voices into the conversation, rather than creating a hollow silence. Indeed, my favourite poem – Robert Lowell’s ‘For the Union Dead’ (1960) – drew upon a monument to African-American Union soldiers to ask the northern ‘victors’ to question just what they had achieved, and lost, a century after the Civil War.

  2. We are Australian, not American. The statues that were erected by former generations of white Australia reflect the thinking of those generations. No one can deny that James Cook sailed up the East Coast. No one can deny that the First Fleet landed here in January 1788. So why erase it from the national pool of knowledge? So America is pulling down statues — so what? We don’t have to run bleating after another country and do the same. We should stand proud, not kowtow to overseas influences. The arrival of the First Fleet was a turning point in Australia’s past and no matter how unpalatable it might be to some, over two centuries have passed since it happened. Future generations need to know about it.

  3. Thanks for that. Historians here should be engaging with this debate more. I’ve argued elsewhere about the potential for ‘mobile monuments’ – the performance of history, not monumentalisation. In the US, historical reenactors do this (so there should be no complaints about getting rid of a few statues here and there!), some good, some bad and some.. But the potential is there. And just a minor thing – it is Evans statue not Macquarie in Bathurst. In Canada, a solution to a similar monument was to cut the kneeling Native American off and create a new monument just nearby.

    • A comment in passing concerning the Evans Memorial in Bathurst, which is where I live. For those who care to look and reflect, the relative positioning and poses of Mr Evans and the Wiradjuri man may suggest that the sculptor, Gilbert Doble, has offered what was for j1915 (when designed) a progressive interpretation, worthy of consideration today. Hatless Evans, stands erect in conventional European pose gazing towards the “new country”, Wiradjuri man, in the way of a hunter crouches low, eyes shaded, viewing the same landscape. He is not in a position of subjugation, as his back is towards Evans. Nor is he following Mr E, but he is thrust slightly in front of him – being here first. They are together sharing the view, but in different ways. As Evans did not use Aboriginal guides, or receive any local guidance (or have much local contact), we can be confident that the Aboriginal depicted is a local Wiradjuri. People will read what they want into the “Evans Memorial”. I personally read a story of sharing and optimism about the future. As for cutting off the Wiradjuri man and putting him in his own monument, not only does this deny what we might take from this monument today, but it is probably not practical. The metal work is absolute crap. Gilbert Doble, a Sydney sculptor, didn’t cast his statues in bronze but used a system of either electroplating or hammering copper onto zinc forms. Remove it and it will fall apart. By way of a postscript query, is anyone aware of earlier (pre 1915) public statues depicting Aboriginal people? We have the Mitchell Library doors with their scenes of native folk.

      • Just to correct myself. It’s known locally as the Evans Monument, not Evans Memorial. PHA people are always welcome to visit Bathurst and its region and see what we are doing history-wise. It’s an ongoing process.

      • Thanks Robin, I have visited Bathurst and looked up at the Evans Monument and did not know how to interpret the relationship between the two men. Thank you for your advice, a lot of food for thought there.

  4. Public artworks differ in their quality and significance, and should not be treated as if they are all sacrosanct. They are in the public domain at the behest of the public and can be removed if public opinion about them changes. The Australian ICOMOS AND heritage community’s Burra Charter provides a useful method for addressing these issues: insisting that an assessment of significance including consultation with affected communities is necessary before developing a management plan for the place/ artwork. Satisfying compromises are possible. For example with the Captain Cook statue, leave it in Hyde Park but take off the incorrect inscription that Cook “discovered” Australia and replace it with something more appropriate.

  5. Dear Beverley. Noone is talking about erasing any knowledge. This is not an imitation of the US. These monuments have been the subject of such debate now for years. Look at the discussion on the Evans statue in Bathurst, dating well back before this. Look at the debate over the Robert Towns statue in Townsville. The US case has, as it should, made Australians also think through these issues. Fear mongering about toppling monuments is unfortunately rife. People have suggested additional text, or moving monuments, or redressing the imbalance of monuments by making new ones of histories that should be recognised. Please do have a deeper look into the issues, thanks. Stephen.

  6. Yes I agree. There are many statues set up to commemorate people and events that were interpreted using a different historical imagination to what is currently understood. As historians we need to educate the public about these changes in the historiography. Perhaps local authorities could install interpretive signs around the offending statues making it clear that different historical interpretations have developed that take into consideration the broader implications of shifting attitudes in our society.

  7. In the case of the Evans Memorial (which is what it is called), interpretive signage is being added. As well, I have written, as a contact job, for the Bathurst Regional Council a self-guiding brochure on early 19th century government surveyors which ends with a visit to the “EM” and reflects (in about 25 word!) on the two men atop it. I hope in its small way this brochure will raise thought and talk about this issue. More broadly, a conversation is already happening here. We don’t need Americans to tell us what we should be thinking, saying and doing.

  8. A thought-provoking discussion. For some time I’ve been interested in the memorialisation of Jean-Francois de Galaup, Comte de La Perouse on the northern shore of Botany Bay & the romanticisation of his six weeks sojourn there. This was not a man of the ‘noble savage’ school of thought. To him indigenous people were simply ‘savages’, possibly as a result of his time in Samoa where some of his crew were killed. Even though the suburb was named after him, I’ve never heard a local Aboriginal person call it anything but ‘Lapa/La Per’. This classic Aussie abbreviation reclaims the place name for the local community – sort of!

  9. I was recently in WA and visited a place called Bootenal Spring, on the Greenough Flats. I knew the spring as a boy and often visited with my grandmother. I could always feel there was something ‘special’ about it, but never really knew its stories.

    Today, there is a little track that rambles around the spring and river banks with 11 plaques set into plinths just above ground level. The plaques tell several stories, one being of the Bootenal massacre in 1854. Each plaque contains a quote, some from historical documents, some from oral histories. They were prepared by a local historian and members of the local Naaguja people. They don’t try to tell a coherent or total story, but instead give the walker different perspectives across time. Their demand is that you contemplate.

    This was at the same time as the reactions to Stan Grant’s commentary on the Captain Cook statue in Sydney was in the news. The plaques had been installed on National Sorry Day in 2011, with local people wanting the conflict to be recognised in local history, and for the place to be respected. The use of quotes was a deliberate method to encourage viewers to interpret the stories and provoke their own discussions, rather than present them with a single ‘truth’.

    In this part of WA the east coast is something of a foreign country, a feeling made ever more stark sitting by the Spring that day and comparing in my mind its monuments with those in Hyde Park. Perhaps the real monument at Bootenal Spring is the landscape itself, a palimpsest inscribed and re-inscribed so many times but always powerfully evocative. Perhaps that’s what my grandmother was trying to show me all those years ago, through the eloquence of quietly experiencing a place, without speaking or words?

    I am struggling to write a post for my HistoryMatrix blog, made all the more complicated by a growing awareness that at least one of my ancestors was involved in the killings in 1854. Conflict over colonial monuments is not new, even if some of the media have only just stumbled across it (via an Americanist lens). Perhaps more contemplation, less shouting; more historiography, less ideology is what we need at this time.

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