Reflections on Contested Histories: Creating and Critiquing Public Monuments and Memorials in a New Age of Iconoclasm

by Hannah Lyons, Dr. Tomás Irish and Dr. Simon John (Swansea University)

On 28 and 29 June, Swansea University hosted researchers from around the world at this online workshop. Attendees discussed the history of statues and memorials, but also posed questions about what the events of 2020 might tell us about the future. The workshop was originally scheduled for June 2020, but was postponed in light of the repercussions of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was in that month of June that protesters toppled the statue of the slavetrader Edward Colston from its plinth in Bristol. In the wake of that event, debates about controversial statues became front-page news around the world. Twelve months on, the debates uncovered by those developments in the summer of 2020 featured at the heart of this workshop.

The two days of discussion and debate were informed by several linked questions. What socio-political motives underpin cultural responses to monuments? How have monuments shaped how people understand the past? How do monuments interact with the urban setting in which they stand? How do the meanings of monuments develop over time and how are they mediated? How have monuments been used to enforce political hegemony/subjugate minorities? The campaigns and protests of 2020 have prompted further pressing questions. What is the future of public statuary/monuments? What monumental forms might represent histories of oppression and occlusion? To what extent does the work of historians in this field overlap with modern-day efforts to improve the treatment of BAME communities or other marginalised groups?

The workshop featured over 40 academic papers from across the world and included representation from several continents. Many countries were represented including Australia, Sweden, India, Croatia, Trinidad and Turkey. The individuals who presented these papers came from a wide variety of disciplines, including history, architecture, art history, heritage, philosophy, sociology, political studies and anthropology. While many of these individuals were academic scholars, some of them worked as part of non-academic organisations including museums and UNESCO. Many of the academics were themselves involved more directly with the creation of and campaigns around particular statues or monuments.

The range of topics discussed in these papers was wide ranging, and involved subjects such as:

  • Differing attitudes to war memorials across nations, including Wales, Croatia, Belgium and Italy.
  • Individual Statue case studies from Turkey, Israel, the US, India, Italy, Sweden, Cyprus, and others.
  • The representation of women in statues.
  • The US Civil War and the legacy of slavery.
  • What might the future of statues look like? (statue parks, memorialisation etc.)
  • Instances of statue toppling in the distant past: 16th and 17th centuries
  • The legacies of colonialism in statues

The workshop sought to facilitate a conversation between scholars and people who have been directly involved in the questions that drove the two days, such as activists who have campaigned to either erect or remove monuments of different types, as well as artists who have been commissioned to create representational work out of complex historical events. The workshop’s first plenary session gave a forum to these practitioners to discuss their experiences of creating and critiquing public statuary. Many of the other speakers at the event also had experience of working at the interface of scholarship and heritage and these experiences were a crucial part of their presentations. It was clear that the current public debates taking place around the world about the function of public monuments and statuary have seen academics play active roles as historical consultants and activists.

Many of the papers delivered at the workshop were very current and, in some cases, referred to events that were mere days old. The event, taking place a full year after the toppling of Colston’s statue in Bristol in the summer of 2020, represented a snapshot of a moment in time where critiques of public statuary, monuments, and the histories that they represent have become global. The papers demonstrated, too, that a transnational dialogue has often shaped how these issues are dealt with.

The papers presented at the workshop covered a vast range of intersecting themes, from digital memorialisation, theory, examples of iconoclasm from earlier periods in history, discussions of the nation-state, the legacies of empire and slavery, war memorials, religion, gender, and academic spaces as sites of contested histories. The workshop was not a definitive account of any of these issues but evidence of the breadth and depth of debates that are currently taking place across the world; the discussions over the two days made it clear that history has been littered with examples of iconoclasm directed at public monuments. The volume of contemporary debates taking place, and the possibilities afforded by digital technologies and the creative arts, suggest that contested histories may be dealt with in new and dynamic ways in the future.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and supports other events like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars working in the field of historical studies at all stages in their careers.

The conference was also financially supported by British Academy and Leverhulme Trust (in conjunction with the Elizabeth Barker Fund) and the Royal Historical Society.

A Wakelet of online discussion around this event was compiled and can be viewed here

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