Statues aren’t our history. They’re our archaeology.
Recent weeks have seen statues again become a flashpoint for protest and debate. Statues of slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol and Belgian king Leopold II in Antwerp have been torn down. Statues of Winston Churchill in London, Captain James Cook in Melbourne and Sydney, Robert E. Lee in Virginia, and many others across the world, have been vandalised. After writing a master’s thesis about the removal of statues last year and watching the current debate being played out, it has become clear to me that many people are misunderstanding the meaning of public monuments. For example, ‘tearing them down would be erasing our history’ is a common refrain from those opposing the vandalism or removal of statues. ‘We don’t need a statue to teach the history of colonialism’ is a common counterargument. The fact is that statues are teaching us very little about history. Most are accompanied by a brief plaque mentioning who the person was, their job title or major achievement, and who raised the statue. The majority of Captain Cook statues, for example, don’t go into detail about who appointed him, when he set sail, what happened on the voyage, the ways in which he charted the coast, etc. Instead we are just given a simple description, for example, ‘Captain Cook. Discovered Australia’. Not only is this not teaching us history, it is in itself erasing history because it only tells us the European side of the story, and a factually incorrect one at that. But having these memorials, and only these memorials, normalises this version of history, erasing alternative versions.
Rather than history, these statues are our archaeology. Archaeology is the study of human activity, beliefs, and values through material culture: that is, the objects that were created and used by humans. The value of statues is not in what they tell us about the individual being memorialised, but what they tell us of the society that created the statue, erected it, and perhaps altered, removed, or replaced it. These statues are therefore a story of us. Who we venerated and celebrated, what stories we told, and what values we upheld. At the moment, these are largely celebrations, stories, and values of white men. Walking the stretch of Melbourne’s St Kilda Road and Swanston Street between the Shrine of Remembrance and State Library, for example, there are fourteen statues of named individuals. Thirteen of these are men. The lone woman is the statue of Joan of Arc outside the State Library, who is flanked by a bunyip, St George fighting a dragon, and a Gumnut Baby. The other statues are all of men, and are all white, with the possible exception of St George. In terms of leaving an archaeological record of our society, I think we can do better than this. Especially when future generations would look at our archaeological record and see that we left our monumental landscape intact, but allowed important, ancient Aboriginal sites to be destroyed.
There are many options for dealing with archaeological artefacts. They may be uncovered, recorded in place, and covered over again. Or they may be left in place with some protection and interpretation. Or they may be removed and placed in a museum. Or a new museum may be created specifically for the objects. There are examples of all these approaches with regards to statues. The Maitland Brown Memorial in Fremantle has been left in place but has had additional information added. A Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas in Austin was removed from the campus and put into a museum with details about why it was created and why it was removed. And there are three examples in Hungary, Lithuania, and Russia, of statue parks created to house communist memorials removed from their cities. The best option will need to be decided on a case-by-case basis, in consultation with the community. Museums might not have space, for example, or there might not be enough statues in a given location to make a statue park a viable option.
Regardless of what option is taken, archaeological recording of these objects is important. We need to preserve their context. An object does not have intrinsic meaning, but gets its meaning from its use, surroundings, and relationship to other objects and the landscape. When you remove the object from its location, it therefore loses some of its meaning. This is what we mean when we talk about context. A statue of a Confederate soldier, created at the end of the Civil War and erected in a cemetery, has a different context and meaning to one that was erected on the steps of a capitol building at the height of the white supremacist movement in the 1920s. The first statue might be a genuine reflection of loss and sorrow, whereas the latter is a message of intimidation and power. Similarly, a statue of Captain Cook at Botany Bay has some relevance, whereas one in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, a place he never visited, much less so. In this way, the physical context of the statue needs to be recorded, which can be done by photography, laser scanning, mapping, or numerous other techniques. Their relationship to each other is also important, as the fact of there being 12 monuments to white males on one stretch of road, with only a single female represented and no non-whites (I’m excluding St George) tells us more about the values of our society than does a single monument.
If the choice of what monuments get erected is a reflection of our society, so is the choice of which ones get preserved or torn down. These are other forms of context which should also be recorded. Who created the monuments and why? Why did they become controversial? What changes did they go through over time, for example vandalism or protest? How did people behave in and use the space around them? How did they make different groups feel? Who was involved in the decision to remove them? These are questions that archaeologists would often ask about an artefact, but in the case of ancient or prehistoric artefacts, may never be able to get the answers. We are in the fortunate position now of being able to answer these questions, and so these contexts should also be recorded, whether the statue ends up in a museum or not.
While I’m not advocating vandalism or even saying that all of the monuments should come down, I do think that we should be thinking of these as a current reflection of our values as a society rather than as purely historical objects. On this basis, our memorial landscapes do feel like they are out of date and there is room to even the score. So if we retain that Captain Cook memorial, let’s add another sculpture that commemorates the victims of colonialism, whether through disease or violence. And let’s record the contexts of our monuments so that they can be studied and questioned in future, regardless of where they end up. It’s important that we continue to think critically about the way we present history and the kind of societal values that we are projecting, and this contextual information about our public monuments can help to educate us and provide a focus around which we can continue to reflect on who and what we are celebrating, including whose voices we are valuing. Public monuments are part of our archaeology and we should consider what record of our society we want to leave behind.