Statues, Memory and the Digital

This week, a statue of Edward Colston was felled from its plinth in Bristol, UK and thrown into the waters of the nearby harbour. Colston was Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, responsible for the transportation, exploitation and death of thousands of People of Colour through the slave trade.

This moment is just one of many that has sparked debates about the meaning and value of monuments.

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In today’s blog, I depart from thinking solely about Holocaust memory to consider how some of the debates that have informed commemoration practices in relation to this particular genocide are also relevant to this week’s events. Also, how discussions about decolonisation can inform Holocaust memory studies, particularly regard thinking about the role of digital technologies.

Holocaust memory, and memory of slavery and colonisation are distinct. We should also not simply refer to each of these complex webs of experiences and commemorations in terms of singular ‘memory’ but rather identify the multivocal memories related to each.

Nevertheless, there is also a place for thinking comparatively about memories of genocide and persecution, particularly when scholarship about Holocaust memory has dominated in academic and public discourse, and has often been used to draw attention to the persecution of minority groups that have not been publicly commemorated to the same extent (see: Holocaust Memory in a Globalizing World).

It took only a week for debates about statues related to the #blacklivesmatter movement to make reference to the Holocaust. On one side, some argued ‘would you support a statue of Hitler being in Auschwitz?’ On the other, they said ‘removing this statue is like bulldozing Auschwitz’. Both are unhelpful comparisons falling back on Goodwin’s Law of the Internet, nevertheless they both illustrate that the Holocaust remains a significant cultural reference when such debates arise.

My good friend Dr Alasdair Richardson, University of Winchester recently explained on Twitter how this comparison misses the point that Auschwitz the concentration camp does not exist. It was, almost immediately, replaced with a memorial museum after the Soviet army liberated survivors. No one thought it right to celebrate perpetration of violence after the event. Why are we doing this with slavery and colonisation?

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Monumentality

Monuments are problematic. They are static and petrify the living into concrete figures, designed to exist in a fixed form within a specific community, forever. Their materiality suggests any meaning attached to them and the history they represent cannot be changed – it is, just liked the monument, fixed. Monuments stop the movement of history; they propose an end to history. They say the past happened, it happened like this. It is done. There is no more to be said about it.

Anthropologist Marc Augé (2009) argues that monuments help define ‘anthropological place’ – defining a history and thus a shared identity for the people who live in it. He positions himself against Pierre Nora, who is more critical of monuments for externalising memory. For Nora, monuments take the responsiblity for remembering away from the individual, and with it, their embodied and critical ability to engage with the past. As Augé notes, any ‘history’ associated with an anthropological place is always constructed – mythical, thus it helps to emphasise a particular, dominant ideology.

History is constantly in a state of becoming, it is as much about the present and heading towards the future, as it is about what has already been. Those who argue that history is being erased, fail to recognise what history is. It is an ever-expanding multitude of narratives about the past, not simply from the past.

We need to also think carefully about the historical moment in which the type of monuments currently under review were created. Slavery was abolished in 1833, the Colston statue was erected in 1895 and Edward Colston died in 1721. The late Victorian era saw a growing unease about the dominance of the Empire, illustrated for example in Gothic literature such as Dracula. Simultaneously, there was a celebration of racist practices. Eugenics informed natural and ethnographic museum displays and ‘human zoos’ were considered a form of public entertainment (for which entire villages from colonised land would be exported for display in major European cities, many of the participants dying of diseases like influenza to which they had not previously been exposed).

The reification of historical figures like Colston into statue-form in the late nineteenth century said loud and clear that whilst slavery had theoretically been abolished, the racist ideology of colonialism continued. This is the history that it celebrated. It was not designed to help people learn about the genocidal actions of White Europeans against People of Colour.

Monuments have a totalizing effect; they are designed to be permanent and provide historical continuity. They have often been used by totalitarian regimes as symbols of power. When oppressive leaders fall, their statues are often soon toppled as an expression of the people’s newfound power over this figure and as a symbolic gesture of rupture that disrupts the historical continuity and suggests it is time for a new era. (Of course, sometimes this action is used by counter military forces, equally as destructive as the previous leader, to present themselves as the liberators.)

James Young (1993) has written extensively about numerous artists who have created countermonuments to the Holocaust because they are explicitly aware of the problematic significance of monuments. Some examples include:

  • Harburg’s Monument against Fascism, which invited citizens to add their name and messages to a concrete rectangle block protruding from the pavement. As sections of the block filled with messages, they were moved underground until only the top surface of the structure could be seen at street level. All of the messages are embedded into the earth below the city, they cannot be seen, but citizens who contributed or saw this large concrete form know it is still there.

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  • Artist Horst Hoheisel’s Negative-Form Monument was designed for the city of Kassel, Germany. How does one represent absence, the artist asked? By re-creating it, he responded. He re-designed the twelve-metre-high neo-Gothic pyramid foundation that once stood in the main town square, condemned and destroyed by Nazi activists in 1939 because it was funded by a Jewish entrepreneur. Then, he inverted the design, so it lies upside down, underground. Its base at street level marks where it lies.

As the Holocaust became significant in European and global memory – and it has not always been – it repeatedly came to be referred to as a problem of representation. How does one imagine the unimaginable? how does one represent the unrepresentable? These challenges called into question traditional practices of monument-building. If the very principles of monumentality have been questioned in the European context through debates about Holocaust memory, why would anyone still feel it is necessary to have monuments – in the traditional sense – to those responsible for and profiteers of slavery and colonisation?

From static to movement and participation

Both of the countermonuments above suggest a liveliness to objects opposed to the static fixity of traditional monuments and statues. Monument against Fascism also particularly draws attention to the potential for monuments to be interactive and open up communal dialogue opposed to being the lieux de memoire that Pierre Nora (1989) worried replaced habitual, bodily memory for the sake of a unified, uncritical group-think form of commemoration.

Recent activism focused on decolonising monuments across the world points to similar potentials for rethinking the future of statues in the digital age. Below I want to concentrate on three issues related to ongoing memory activism:

Networked Memory#RhodesMustFall – this now infamous hashtag re-ignited a global call to remove statues of Cecil Rhodes and others who profited from colonisation and the slave trade. The hashtag and associated movement started in 2015 at the University of Cape Town but had global resonance. It has reappeared as a prominent hashtag on Twitter this week as protests in Oxford, UK call AGAIN for the removal of a statue of Rhodes at the University of Oxford. In the past few days, several institutions, councils and other public bodies have stated they will remove statues and rename streets that glorify those who led colonial projects and profited from slavery. #RhodesMustFall continues to have major, material impact across the world.

A recent post from the Museum of London illustrates how public institutions are now engaging in this grassroots process.

Hashtags, like #RhodesMustFall, appear, disappear and reappear, and they can act as digital countermonuments. They are both static in that to enhance their spreadability and visibility online they rely on users adopting the same repeated words and yet, they are fluid as this small unit of fixity unites a wide range of often dissonant perspectives in a memory debate.

Archiving the variety of content is difficult, although it can be done to some extent using platforms like Adobe Livefyre and the now defunct Storify, or programming software like Python. These options do not have the capacity to capture every post or the extent to which posts reference other posts. The ever-growing, hyperconnective and on-the-fly character of the hashtag allows it to create a living memory, which constantly evolves. It is ephemeral, in stark opposition to the permanence of the brass statues.

The significance of hashtags as countermonuments draws attention to the usefulness of multidirectional memory (Rothberg, 2009). Rothberg used this term to explore how memory debates are not necessarily simply competitive, but rather they can be productively multidirectional. One example he gives is when the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (the USHMM) was proposed (and later built) at a site relevant to US slavery history. This, Rothberg, argues opened up debates about why there was no museum about slavery in the US capital and helped encourage plans for an exhibition to be established rather than simply create a hierarchy of which memory was more culturally valued. Although not a separate institution in its own rights, as the USHMM is, the National Museum of African American History and Culture now exists as part of the collective of museums that compose the Smithsonian.

Memory then is complex, fluid and multivocal.

Debates online are increasingly moving towards not whether Colston’s statue should be removed (it is gone now after all), but what should happen to it. Whilst many have made facile comparisons to Holocaust memory in this moment, we must not forget that many museums and memorials dedicated to this past have also faced mass public debate (the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin; the USHMM as discussed above; and currently the proposal for a national Holocaust Memorial in London, UK). Hashtags can spark multidirectional memory debates that are immediate and global in their potential effect. In just a few days the resurrection of #RhodesMustFall has led to massive changes in the international memoryscape.
Social Lives of Objects – In Bristol, Colston’s bust was graffitied before it was immersed into water, in a poetic and powerful action that echoed the treatment of both dead and living slaves transported by the Royal African Company.

Since, images of cardboard signs surrounding the plinth and living People of Colour taking the position formally occupied by Colson have circulated on social media illustrating how memory can, and should, change over time.

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The journey of Colston’s bust and transformation of the plinth in the past few days reminds me of Arjun Appadurai’s (1986) seminal work on the social life of things. There has been much discussion in decolonial studies about how museums ‘deaden’ objects stolen from cultures by White Imperialists for their museum collections. Appadurai’s work more subtly describes objects as experiencing journeys in which their meaning and value can change, this approach opens up the potential for life to be reinvigorated in these ‘deadened’ objects – we can rescue them from the glass display box of the museum. Divya Tolia-Kelly and Rosanna Raymond (2019) reflect on decolonising ways of seeing in the national museum.

In the museum or as a monument, an object has a particular cultural value (over a use value). When it is removed, it does not cease to have meaning, but rather its significance is changed and it takes on a new cultural role. History is not being erased when these statues are defaced or removed, it is being written, and more importantly, from the perspective of my own research, memory is being returned to the body as it is freed from the fixity of the monumental form, to be lived as a fluid, evolving and communal experience.

We might not be too eager to musealise these statues or to replace them with memorials of black slaves. For the former may fix memory once again and the latter potentially encourages what Fatimah Tobing Rony (1996) calls fascinating cannibalism, where White communities consume, and fetishise, images of black bodies as subservient and emaciated.
Mapping the Lives of Objects – some people have called for Colston’s statue to be placed in a museum, so that we (particularly White communities) might learn form this past in ways that the statue’s presence in the lived environment had not enabled. Museums are still heavily criticised for foregrounding the very same colonial logics statues such as Colston’s perpetuate. Even when they have invested extensive resources into ‘decolonising’ their practices and exhibitions such as the Royal Central Africa Museum, in Belgium, they do not necessarily get this right.

Perhaps one solution to this, already happening in relation to the Colston statue, is the use of digital technologies to map and activate memory narratives. There is already a pin on Google Maps to show where Colston’s bust was dropped into the canal with ‘Closed’ written underneath. Perhaps mapping technologies such as this (and I would call for ones not linked to surveillance capitalism, which amplify rather than resist racist practices) might offer ways to map the social life of things such as statues.

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Remove them from their glorifying positions in communal spaces and let young people (and adults) track the multiple narratives of the exploitation of human beings that enabled particular individuals to practise philanthropy (if they did indeed do so), how and why these individuals became glorified often decades after their death, and why their statues were later defaced and removed. Let individuals share their stories (of resistance and activism) and those of their ancestors (whose experiences really are in danger of being lost to the past), tagging them on the map.

Participatory museum manifestos have long been calling for us to let go of our fetishisation of the need to keep objects in a particular fixed state and to encourage more active and collaborative memory practices. Museums cannot present every object of significance or indeed do justice in limited physical spaces to the complex, multivocal and ever-expanding memory narratives related to any singular object. There is a potential for hyperconnective online spaces to do just this.

I leave you with a quote from Nina Simon’s excellent book ‘The Participatory Museum’ (2010) [Here’s more by Simon, 5 Years On] that imagines an utopian ideal of memory practice that resonates with the hyperconnective memory illustrated above:

I dream of a comparable future institution that is wholly participatory, one that uses participatory engagement as the vehicle for visitor experiences. Imagine a place where visitors and staff members share their personal interests and skills with each other. A place where each person’s actions are networked with those of others into culminative and shifting content for display, sharing, and remix. A place where people discuss the objects on display with friends and strangers, sharing diverse stories and interpretations. A place where people are invited on an ongoing basis to contribute, to collaborate, to co-create, and to co-opt the experiences and continue in a designed, international environment. (…) A place that gets better the more people use it.

4 thoughts on “Statues, Memory and the Digital

  1. Entirely aside from its arguments, this article contains the worst collection of jargon I have come across in any public history context. There is nothing more patronising than using words like “reification”, “multidirectional”, “multivocal”, “memoryscape” or “hyperconnective” which are much less meaningful than the writer seems to think and serve only to exclude the uninitiated from what are, in this case particularly, fairly uncomplex ideas.

    This kind of closed and self-referential discussion is why academic historians have be so comprehensively sidelined in public discussions about historical topics at the moment.

    Like

    1. Dear Anonymous, I’m not a historian. This piece is written from a cultural studies and memory studies perspective. This blog is a place to keep track of progress of academic research development for a particular project on digital memory, it never intends or indeed pretends to be public history. Its very purpose is to explore some of the key terms that you list which are essential to the fields of digital memory studies, which would be expected in such work if I was to be taken seriously in my field.

      I totally agree that these terms are uncomplex and yet whilst they refer quite essentially to how cultural memory functions both in digital and lived spaces, their significance is often ignored and thus institutions rarely engage with the potential of digital technologies for memory work.

      Thank you for dipping your head into cultural and memory studies.

      Like

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