Now you see them… on statues, memorials and public memory

Now you see them… on statues, memorials and public memory

Statues and memorials are both largely unseen and also omnipresent aspects of urban landscapes, more rarely existing in rural settings, and they act as what Andreas Huyssen refers to palimpsests. Almost meaningless to most, scratch at their usually ignored surfaces and what comes to sight are the contentions, conflicts and power-plays of the past. Their presence mainly in urban settings is no accident, for that is where they can be both unseen and can mark the cityscape in ways that become part of the fabric of how things are. They come to shape flows of people and vehicles, and also how a city or town is seen and understood, but their specific histories may be disremembered. They are not repositories of memory, but of ‘memory’, remembering that this is almost always the memory of the victors of those past events. But statues and memorials are not exactly coterminous and ordinarily memory-making swirls about them in rather different ways, for statues are mainly to individual people (usually, some are symbolic like Eros in London, and others commemorate in a different way, like Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh), while memorials usually (again, exceptions can always be found) have a collective public memory-making purpose. And the politics of the powerful is involved in both.

Such matters erupted into the public domain as points of sharp, bitter contention and conflict in South Africa a few years ago in student riots and demonstrations, which publicly and outside of South Africa became largely associated with the RhodesMustFall campaign but which had much wider remit and a more complicated character in South Africa itself. Black Lives Matter have put matters of public memory and memorialisation back onto the agenda, around individual statutory involving individuals associated with slavery. From the US, there have been powerful reverberations elsewhere, including in Europe, including in the UK.

In an Oxford University context, this has become overlaid with the resurgence of an earlier local RhodesMustFall campaign to remove a commemorative statue to Rhodes above the entrance to Oriel College, a position which he in effect bought by a large financial donation written into his will. Unsuccessful in this a few years ago, in the last few days a vote of Oriel’s governing body has agreed to remove it. Ironically, these recent events have brought Rhodes to public attention in a way not previously seen; in an odd sense, he is now presently more ‘remembered‘ in the UK than at any point earlier.

Thinking further about this by returning to the South African context, it is interesting to conjecture about more and less successful ways to counter the symbolic and material force of public-political commemoration in the shape of statues and memorials. For instance, attempts have been made to commemorate those who fought, and those who came after, those commemorated by white statues and memorials. Freedom struggle commemorative tours have resulted, some very successful, others not so. And more by accident than by policy, older commemoratives structures have been unfunded or had funding for their upkeep greatly reduced, and have quietly decayed as a result. Mention these latter to people, people of different ages and skin colours, and they blank. By and large there is simply no longer much knowledge of the existence and nor is their presence registered. Forgetting, really forgetting, is the most successful counter. And it would seem that the more monuments can be personalised – whether this is Steve Biko or Paul Kruger or the Cradock Four, or indeed collectivised figures like the soldiery who died at Spion Kop – the more intense is both opposition and support. Perhaps this is because by doing so they can be tied to specific events and activities, both good and bad, that present current political views and groupings can organise around them.

This brings into sight an uncomfortable aspect, that it is not straightforwardly a case of the false memory of political victors as ‘set in stone’ being overturned and replaced by the oppressed who occupy a moral and not a political ground. Remembering at this point that commemorative outcomes are a product of the politics of victors provides food for thought. There is a large and extremely interesting literature that exists on remaking memory regarding statues and memorials, their part in public and political commemoration, and how notions of ‘public’ are politically constructed. An annotated reading list on this will appear on the White Writing Whiteness webpages in the next few days.


Last updated: 18 June 2020