A museologist’s take on the defacing and unceremonious removal of problematic statues

2020 | Medium

An essay written during the protests of June 2020 that saw many statues of problematic historical figures removed or defaced, by protestors or the authorities. As a response to the fear that such gestures would amount to an erasure of history, I retrace the dynamics of monuments in public space, and the legitimacy of the demands that some statues be taken.


“Thinking about the unceremonious removal or the defacing of statues of problematic historical figures (such as slave traders) as an attempt to erase or negate history, or its complexity, is a profound misconception of the dynamics at play in monuments in the public space.* One which the demonstrators who mangled them, on the other hand, have perfectly understood.

Indeed, such gestures demonstrate the continuous impact of the past on the present, the resonance of historical episodes in people right here and now, and the — symbolic but very real — pain they still inflict. People who have demanded that some statues be taken down, and are sometimes taking the matter in their literal hands, do not want history erased: they want history, as well as the past and present sufferings it causes, acknowledged, and thus demand a correction in the kinds of individuals we honour with a statue in public space. […]

Further still, thinking of such gesture as an erasure of history fails to acknowledge them as part of history, as history being made, as a fait d’histoire. It is very much part of the history of these statues to be taken down, or moved, or altered, at a certain moment, by certain people, for certain reasons — just as it is part of their history to have been selected and cast for public display at a certain moment, by certain people, for certain reasons. It is part of the complexity of history and of its memorialisation, its discontents and its contestations. Which is why, for instance, decisions to preserve the statues unrestored often make perfect sense. History is never still, never achieved, never done and dusted, but continuously in the process of being written. It is constantly revisited, nuanced, complemented, complexified and seen from different perspectives. And remembrance is an equally complex, contentious and even at times volatile process.”

Read it on Medium or follow me on Medium