Edward Colston has taken a bath in Bristol, Robert Milligan has left the West India Docks in London, and Christopher Columbus was recently beheaded in Boston. Many think this is just the start and are calling for the removal of a long list of problematic figures, while others are lamenting that pulling down racist statues and colonialist memorials could erase history, and lead to forgetfulness about how a country’s past is indeed tangled with the history of transatlantic slavery.
Like everything on social media these days, the debate over monuments has become astonishingly polarized. One side says they are symbols of local pride and “heritage”, so they must remain intact; the other says they memorialize white supremacy and we have to hide or even destroy them. Regardless of the outcome of these newly-toppled statues, let’s just hope that preservationists are part of the process.
A simple and mutually-beneficial solution exists in preserving and curating these sculptures, particularly the ones that were recently defaced with graffiti and other forms of paint which beautifully captured the anger and frustration in the air. We should safeguard these statues not because they are worthy of protection, but precisely because they embody a problematic history and have elicited such a strong reaction from the public, which deserves to be remembered.
Simply pulling them down won’t do anything to challenge their legacy. Such work will require diligence of preserving our racist past, so that one day we will learn not to repeat it. No other institutions can appease to all sides involved but local museums, and some examples throughout history perfectly highlight this reality.
After the fall of the USSR, the Yeltsin government famously established a park and crammed in it all the Lenin and Stalin statues they could find after they were removed from the squares and city centres of Russia, where they had proudly stood. In India, a Coronation Park in Delhi was established in place of the Raj’s ceremonial parade ground, to become the slightly surreal resting ground for the marble monarchs, viceroys and governors of the past. It stands as a somewhat successful tourist attraction today, but its bigger purpose has undeniably been served: history was respected in a way that continues to provoke critical reflection and avoid pretending the memorials never existed.
The proposal almost presents itself: create a park of fallen “heroes” or collaborate with local museums who have struggled due to recent closures to curate exhibitions that preserve these sculptures while simultaneously educating us of their dark pasts. We must establish places of exile for all cruel aristocrats, including Robert Clive who currently stands outside the Foreign Office in London and Cecil Rhodes of Oriel College at Oxford, and replace them with more appropriate figures that better reflect society today.
Merely three years ago, New Orleans took down a monument commemorating a white uprising of 1874 that was against the racial integration of local government. The monument was then hidden away in storage, where nobody could see it. How was that a victory in the battle to recognize and weed out white supremacy? It wasn’t.
As we remove problematic memorials, we must use them to our advantage in making sure that racism, however systemic or implicit, has no place in our futures. Anything less will simply whitewash racism, all under the veil of rebutting it. If we simply remove them out of sight, they will quickly be out of mind. And that will only perpetuate our own nostalgia, forgetting the ugly truths that brought us here in the first place.