The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at the University of Oxford may have suffered a setback, but it has let the genie out of the bottle regarding the value of public memorials to historical figures argues Monica Threlfall.
Many people walking in city squares and looking at commemorative inscriptions – usually of a military man on horseback – might wonder why we need to remember distant generals who won battles, killing thousands of conscripted soldiers for some unidentified improvement. They invade our mental space through the centrality of their locations, trying to remind us of their victories over subaltern or weaker enemies, demanding to be given obeisance by every new generation.
The recent Rhodes Must Fall campaign suffered a setback with the University of Oxford and Oriel College’s announcement that the statue atop Oriel College’s façade will remain. The battle over Rhodes raised wider questions that have universal implications. What to do about the endless figurative glorification of men, sometimes women, for their role in long forgotten events, usually battles, when they are made of stone and iron set to last for many centuries? Currently, statues have no sell-by date. Perhaps they should? What to do with the many statues all over the world that can, with time, provoke disgust? Is it time for cultural institutions – public and private – to launch an initiative that would research and publish a new catalogue of people who deserve to be honoured now, according to contemporary values?
We ought long ago to have accepted that the reputations of one time great men might change, as formerly subordinate classes, genders, races and countries gain a voice and tell their (his)stories in a different way because they view them from their own standpoint. We have a choice about what to do with memorials that have aged badly. Instead of pulling them down, it might be more striking to match them with new counterpart statues to serve as a critical reference. Imagine how individuals elevated in stone, forever demanding attention, would look if surrounded by those who opposed them yet were crushed in the story they are trying to remind us of.
In the case of Rhodes, a seat of learning and reflection like a university has been unable to understand that just because Rhodes endowed their institution with endless funds, his other actions do not deserve the respect a statue implies. That accumulating a fortune – even if given to the public – does not whitewash a whole reputation. So why not seek to innovate instead? One can always move a statue to a less prominent place. Even if not moved, this statue of a contested man could be made to share the Oriel courtyard with homages to his victims, by adding new sculptures close by. In this case, the people who fought against the depravations of apartheid to create a multiracial democracy in South Africa surely deserve to be honoured publicly in new ways, over and over, given the cruelly long duration of the white supremacists’ power and violence.
A university surely betrays its mission when it is blind to its obvious duty to disseminate evolved thinking about race and British colonialism, to embrace more balanced views about Africa’s history, and to listen to its students precisely because younger generations have different hate figures and heroes. Indeed, all universities and local authorities could seize opportunities such as this one to recognise the challenges of the new historiography of Southern Africa (and other contestable histories) by revising their statuary and city spaces. Doing so, they can show they understand that armed victories bring victims, and that oppressed actors who rebel also command a distinguished place in history and deserve to be commemorated.
The RSA may have a role to play here; building on its heritage work and its history. For example, we could also revisit the blue plaque system (which the RSA – then the Society of Arts – administered between 1867 and 1901). The scheme still only operates in London; as if it were impossible to imagine that a distinguished person might have been born, bred, achieved recognition, and ended their days without ever living in the capital!
Too often, when gazing at the blue plaques on London houses, one wonders what was the outstanding achievement of this former resident and why should we be reminded? But at least there are plenty of house fronts left to host more plaques, so we could be adding hundreds more to remember other outstanding contributors to the wellbeing of people in this country. Such an approach would allow us to commemorate many more women and men from all walks of life who have made a variety of distinguished contributions to public life through their achievements and struggles.
Dr Monica Threlfall is Reader in European Politics at London Metropolitan University. Her research has focused on the European Union and on contested relations between less-privileged groups of citizens, especially women, and their state.
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I think you are right that taking ownership of Blue Plaques could be great to reinvigorate engagement with heritage. There are many Blue Plaque equivalent schemes which do already extend beyond London: have a look at http://openplaques.org/ which itself was funded by the RSA!
The most inspiring Blue Plaques I've seen recently we're in Cambridge, homemade and printed on paper and celebrating previous generations who lived in houses: https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/rsa-blogs/2015/03/using-heritage-to-realise-the-benefits-of-devolution/