Doing the maths on historical monuments

Colonial monuments have rightly come under scrutiny. We should not the remove controversial reminders, but we do need to tell a wider range of stories about history in our public places

From South Africa to South Carolina, and from Northern Ireland to New Zealand’s North Island, statues and other memorials have periodically come under fire for celebrating controversial historical figures or representing attitudes now seen by some as offensive. In the wake of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement in South Africa and Oxford, The Nation recently asked what New Zealand should do with our own ‘statues of shame’.

This issue is not new to Aotearoa. During the 1980s and 1990s, when many Māori were frustrated at slow progress in settling Treaty claims and then at the government’s imposition of a fiscal cap on the settlement of such claims, statues and memorials seen as representing colonial domination of Māori were targeted in a number of places. Most famously, in 1994-95 the statue of John Ballance in Whanganui was twice beheaded (and the head replaced by a pumpkin), then destroyed by protesters.

Debates about historical monuments raise complex issues of how we should relate to the past and to its legacies in the present. At the same time, these debates and the possible responses to them can be summarised relatively simply using the language of basic arithmetic: addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.

Division. Debates over statues and other memorials can be divisive, but such debates also reflect divisions that already exist within nations and communities. Historical monuments represent particular views of a community’s past and present: who is important and who gets ignored; who were the aggressors and who the victims; and so on. Too often, they represent the perspectives of those who are (or were) politically and socially powerful, and ignore other perspectives on the people or events they commemorate.

When historical monuments come under attack, it is easy to accuse the critics of stirring up division. But often divisiveness is built in to memorials because of their one-sided nature; it is this inbuilt bias the critics are reacting to.

Subtraction. The demand of protesters in Cape Town and Oxford that statues of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes be removed from university campuses exemplifies one approach to contentious monuments: seeking their removal from the public landscape. Such demands are often met with talk of cultural vandalism, and comparisons with the iconoclasm of the Taliban or Islamic State, but I doubt that many people would oppose the removal of offensive monuments in all circumstances. How many of us would feel comfortable with the idea of seeing Nazi monuments in modern Germany?

Still, I believe historical monuments should generally be left in place even if they represent attitudes or individuals many people might object to. Such monuments are part of the historical record, providing important evidence not about the people or events they commemorate but about views at the time when the monuments were created. It is better to promote re-evaluation of those views and of the historical figures and events memorialised in stone or bronze than to simply consign them to history’s scrapheap.

Addition. If attitudes and historical scholarship have moved on since a memorial was created, why not add to the existing text and imagery? A new plaque on the memorial itself or an information board nearby can help to put a memorial into context and provide new information or alternative perspectives on the past.

Tim Watkin asks, ‘where do you stop? Does each generation add a plaque as our views of history twist and turn?’ There are several answers to this question. First, not every memorial deals with events that are sufficiently contentious or important to justify revision. Second, even if a new plaque itself becomes outdated in time, it may be enough to signal that there is more than one perspective on history. Third, if the memorial’s prominence in the landscape and the significance of the events it commemorates warrant it, why not provide new interpretations in every generation (though preferably through information boards rather than a proliferation of plaques)?

Multiplication. Debates over monuments tend to focus on individual statues or memorials, but this focus misses a larger picture. Statues in public places are overwhelmingly of straight, white, wealthy men, and memorials disproportionately represent history as seen through the eyes of such men. This is changing, but not fast enough.

Instead of talking about the possible removal of existing monuments, we could think about creating new works of public art that tell different stories and represent different historical experiences from those depicted in older memorials. These new works need not be bronze or stone monuments; they can take new forms that may be playful, provocative or interactive.

The current spate of 150th anniversaries of events during the New Zealand Wars has seen the construction of new memorials, generally initiated by Māori and employing Māori iconography (particularly carved wooden pou). As The Nation reported, the memorial to Colonel Nixon at Ōtāhuhu commemorates his involvement in one of the most notorious incidents of the Waikato War, the attack on Rangiaowhia.

Today, at Rangiaowhia, new memorials convey a Māori perspective on this event. Perhaps the time has come for such a perspective to be represented at Ōtāhuhu as well?