Remaking memory: on statues and memorials

Whites Writing Whiteness Reading List
Remaking memory: on statues and memorials
Liz Stanley

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2020) ‘Remaking memory: on statues and memorials’, and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Introduction

1.1 The politics surrounding and undergirding statues and memorials and societal responses to them was much in the news when this annotated Reading List was being prepared, associated in large part with Black Lives Matter and public statuary of people associated with slavery. Clearly the issues raised have wider remit too, as old orders give way to new and what was once, at least by those in positions of political authority, seen as worthy of public recognition and memorialisation comes under attack, sometimes literally attack.

1.2 Germany, Italy, Spain among others have had to contend with a Nazi or fascist past and how it marks the national commemorative landscape. The US has had to respond to critiques of memorials and in particular statues glorifying the South and those it saw as having heroic character in the Civil War. Many parts of the world formerly occupied by imperial presences have had to face, and face off, triumphalist or otherwise celebratory statuary. South Africa has its own particular commemorative daemons because of the racialised form that its nationalism took in apartheid. And Britain along with other imperial and colonial powers has had to recognise that many of its present-time citizenry disapprove of the memorialisation of those times and activities instituted in public statues and memorials commemorated in the past but still there in the present.

1.3 However, the issues are complex, for how much of an involvement is enough to condemn, should the past be judged by the moral and political criteria of the present, and are there ways to remember in a public forum that are not objectionable to some? And there is the practical question of what to do about the memorials and statues of the past that lurk in public cityscapes and landscapes. Should they be removed, reconfigured, or ignored with the intention of forgetting, does ‘forgetting’ risk of the return of the repressed at future political points, and does the triumph of ‘now’ risk a new orthodoxy about what can and cannot be seen?

1.4 This annotated reading list is not a comprehensive guide to public and private memorialisation or of public statuary and the profound and complicated issues raised about them. It has a more limited purpose, to draw to attention some interesting work which interrogates the always complex and often difficult issues involved in thinking across a variety of commemorative and memorialised landscapes. The readings here are a beginning point, and to them could be added many others, so readers can then produce something which better reflects their own particular interests.

1.5 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 as palimpsests. Almost meaningless to most, scratch at their usually ignored surfaces and what comes to attention are the contentions, conflicts and power-plays of the past, along with the political tensions and conflicts of the present. 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, demarcate public space, and also marks how a city or town is seen and understood, although their specific histories may be disremembered. They are not landscapes or repositories of memory, but of ‘memory’, something more plastic, constructed and post hoc and more in the spirit of how Halbwachs understands the shifting concerns of commemorative processes. This is post/memory, constructed from the present using traces of the past as but one element in its composition. All public commemoration is imbued with politics and always represents the way that the victors of those events see things and value some persons and happenings but not others. And this means the good victors too, not just the bad victors; it includes those we approve of as well as those we do not.

1.6 Relatedly, it should be remembered that statues and memorials are not coterminous, and ordinarily memory-making swirls about them in rather different ways, for statues are mainly from particular eras which were concerned with the remembrance of notable 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 tend to date from later times. And remembering of course that the politics of the powerful is involved in the presence or absence of both.

1.7 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 particularly associated with the #RhodesMustFall campaign but having much wider remit and a more complicated character in South Africa itself. Black Lives Matter campaigns have put matters of public memory and memorialisation back onto the agenda, around statutory involving individuals associated with slavery. From the US, there have been powerful reverberations elsewhere, including in Europe, including in the UK.

1.8 In an Oxford University (UK) context, this has become overlaid with the resurgence of an earlier local #RhodesMustFall campaign to remove a commemorative statue to Cecil 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 earlier, a vote of Oriel’s governing body agreed in June 2020 to remove it. Ironically, these 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.

1.9 Thinking further about this regarding 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 campaigned against and physically fought against apartheid, and to counter those earlier statues and memorials of both the apartheid regime and earlier white minority governments. Freedom struggle commemorative tours have resulted, some very successful, others not so, others abandoned or damaged. And more by accident than by policy, many older commemorative structures have been unfunded or had funding for their upkeep greatly reduced, and quietly commenced to decay as a result. Mention these latter to people, people of different ages and skin colours and political views, and they blank. By and large there is no longer much knowledge of their existence and nor is their presence registered. Forgetting, really forgetting, forgetting in the ‘neglected and crumbling’ sense, is perhaps the most successful counter.

1.10 And it would seem that the more monuments can be personalised – whether this is Steve Biko or Cecil Rhodes or Paul Kruger or the Cradock Four, or indeed collectivised figures like the British imperial 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 current political views and groupings can organise around. Smearing the University of Cape Town statue of Rhodes with shit was both a literal and a symbolic action indicative of contempt for the man and through him the activities he stood for. This has often been rather one-dimensionally negative, so that for bystanders it becomes difficult to understand why anyone should have supported or gone along with such people at all. Along with any material accomplishments, what also goes is the attraction of power that led many people at the time to support or admire such figures, with its uncomfortable reminder that such things happen now.

1.11 This in turn brings into sight another uncomfortable aspect, that it is not straightforwardly a case of the false memory of political victors as memorialised and ‘set in stone’ being overturned and replaced by the oppressed who occupy a moral high ground. Remembering at this point that commemorative outcomes are indeed always a product of the politics of victors provides food for contemporary thought.

1.12 There is a large and interesting literature on remaking memory regarding statues and memorials, their part in public and political commemoration, and how notions of ‘public’ and ‘memory’ are politically constructed, which explores many of these matters. A taster of this is provided through the references given here.

2. Some key publications

John R. Gillis. 1994. Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On collective memory. Edited, translated and with an introduction by Lewis A. Coser. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. See especially the chapter on the legendary topography.

Huyssen, Andreas. 2003. Present pasts: urban palimpsests and the politics of memory. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Nora, Pierre. 1996. Realms of memory: rethinking the French past. English language edition edited and with a foreword by Lawrence D. Kritzman; translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ricœur, Paul. 2004. Memory, history, forgetting. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and David Pellauer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

3. Annotated readings

Jennifer Beningfield 2006 The Frightened Land: Land, Landscape and Politics in South Africa in the Twentieth Century London: Routledge. An insightful exploration of the spatial politics of separation and division in South Africa in particular regarding the political and cultural landscape in a time of change. Written from an architectural perspective, it contains wider insightsWritten from an architectural perspective, it contains wider insights about land and separation that are relevant to understanding the political practices around commemoration.

Bevan, Robert. 2007. The destruction of memory: architecture at war. Reaktion books. The destruction of cityscapes imposes a kind of cultural scar, because destroyed landscapes impact on more than buildings alone. In some circumstances, they are deliberate ‘acts of cultural annihilation’. Bevan looks at many examples, most but not all involving memorials and statuary, including Hitler’s Kristallnacht, removing Saddam Hussein’s statue in the Iraq War, the destruction of historical sites by IS, and other political and military destructions. The destruction of memory also reminds readers that such historical destructions can have a very sharp and bloody edge to them.

Cherry, Deborah. 2006. “Statues in the Square: Hauntings at the Heart of Empire.” Art History 29, no. 4: 660-97. The statues in Trafalgar Square may seem to signifying little, being taken for granted and largely ignored except as a backcloth for tourists to pass through and mingle. In practice, there have been sharp debates about public memorials in London, including regarding plinths in Trafalgar Square itself. While there is often little detailed knowledge of the histories which produced such statues, the colonial past and its legacies remain embedded in such things. The past haunts the present, a concept taking taken from Derrida’s concern with mourning and remembrance, discussed in relation to a large number of photographs of statues and memorials in Trafalgar Square and environs. Memorialising is a spatial practice, and it produces a form of living with the dead, but this needs to be transformed. The call made by Cherry is for more debates about the statues in the square and new statues and plinth installations.

Annie Combes 2003 History after Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa Duke University Press. Influential book on the wider parameters of public memory.

Drayton, Richard. 2019. Rhodes must not fall? Statues, postcolonial ‘heritage’ and temporality. Third Text, 33, 4-5: 651-66. Commemoration was a key part of making the modern city, and as a consequence ’politics translated into stone’ characterises its approach to public memorials. In this context, Drayton discusses two contemporary controversies, one about the Oriel College statue of Rhodes in Oxford UK, and the other the debate about Nelson’s statue in Bridgetown in Barbados. Whose politics is it that is being preserved and what is silenced in the contemporary context? He concludes that “it is the sign of the crisis of the modern that the idea of ‘heritage’, understood as perpetual service to every aspect of the order bequeathed by the past, has such purchase in the presence” (p.665), and points out that the museum and the city actually belong to the present and there is an a priori legitimate case for renegotiating the idea of heritage in relation to the many silenced pasts.

Dresser, Madge. 2007. “Set in stone? Statues and slavery in London.” History Workshop Journal, 64, no. 1, pp. 162-99. In relation to statues connected with slavery in London in particular, this article asks the key question, “Are monuments impediments rather than incitements to public memory? Or are they a means by which a group or community attempts to establish its collective memory and thereby affirm its very identity?” (p.164). In brief, they are both, for good and, as with so many here, also for ill. Among other important aspects, the article considers the fact that the particular political context in which each monument was conceived, sponsored, made, and placed in public contexts, needs to be explored to grasp the full meaning of them. Dresser does precisely this, by looking in detail at a large number of relevant statues.

Forest, Benjamin, and Juliet Johnson. 2011. “Monumental politics: regime type and public memory in post-communist states.” Post-Soviet Affairs 27, no. 3: 269-88. This article is concerned with collective memory formation around monuments and memory in public spaces. It uses a database on monuments in 26 post-soviet states in order to explore patterns in monumental transformation. Transformation is not unidirectional or uniform. A comparative approach shows the influence of formal political structures on public memory and memorialisation, and that their reconstruction is complexly related to particular national contexts.

Fubah, Mathias Alubafi. 2019. “The changing nature of statues and monuments in Tshwane (Pretoria) South Africa.” Ethnography: 1466138118815515. Fubah’s article is concerned with understanding the role of the ANC government in relation to statues and monuments of post-apartheid South Africa, and makes some interesting points about the different strategies pursued with new commemoration but which is largely in-line with pre-1994 iconography. It is rather uncritical of the government and also contains a number of factual errors.

Goodrich, Andre, and Pia Bombardella. 2016. “What are statues good for? Winning the battle or losing the battleground?” Koers 81, no. 3: 1-10. This article is concerned with toppling statues, an old social and political practice, but begins in particular with 2015 and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. It argues in favour of moving away from fetishizing such material objects as embodying heritage, and building new ways of making publicly visible historically important events and persons.

Henneberg, Krystyna von. 2004. “Monuments, public space, and the memory of empire in modern Italy.” History & memory 16, no. 1: 37-85. This article is particularly concerned with the history and memory of empire associated with Italian colonial wars. It focuses on particular official public monuments, squares, street names, cemeteries and mausoleums, in order to ”trace the shifting role that these markers of memory have played in forging official and public attitudes towards the Imperial past, and how they have both fit, and resisted, Italian conventions of national and military commemoration” (p.38). Making empire in the metropolis is one of its concerns, providing an interrogation of this in the context of Rome and Malan in particular. It is concerned with reconceptualising both these material objects and the public spaces they occupy, and comments “recent history has offered us numerous visions of people toppling towers and statues, often in their haste to replace one truth with another.… one would do well to avoid devising any final solutions to the problem of historical memory and representation” (p.76).

Jedlowski, Paolo. 2001. “Memory and sociology: themes and issues.” Time & society 10, no. 1: 29-44. Useful background reading on sociological thinking about personal and collective memory from the viewpoint of a scholar of time. It also considers theoretical problems, in particular that images and accounts of the past are usually produced by elites which take a very selective approach to events.

Johnson, Nuala C. 2002. “Mapping monuments: the shaping of public space and cultural identities.” Visual communication 1, no. 3: 293-8. Monuments not only shape public space but also cultural identities, as the opening example of the Eiffel Tower conveys. They are not innocent, but compositions in which the aesthetics construct meaning. It is not just a matter of public memory of remembrance, for all kinds of memory work are involved representing different viewpoints, communities and interests. And it is not just the monuments themselves but also the contexts these are located in which do this.

Klein, Kerwin Lee.2000.  “On the emergence of memory in historical discourse.” Representations 69: 127-50. An interrogation of the ‘memory industry’, which in an academic context is represented by the ‘discovery’ of the Shoah or Holocaust and its import, along with the attention given to the work of Pierre Nora and the distinction between history and memory. This has brought with it a major reworking of what memory is taken to mean, not as a given thing, but as a cultural and political construction, so that the idea is now thoroughly theorised. This is referred to as ‘revolution in progress’, with the reverberations spreading out from this in interesting way around the growing or decreasing popularity of related terms.

Legg, Stephen. 2005. Sites of counter-memory: the refusal to forget and the national struggle in colonial Delhi. Historical geography, 33; 180-201. Legg is concerned with how memory and forgetting are not so much intertwined as mobilised as political resources. Melancholia is associated with sites of counter-memory, where particular events, places or persons mark out the refusal to forget. He provides a interesting discussion of this in the context of memory spaces in the wake of colonialism regarding the memorial landscape of Delhi.

Levinson, Sanford. 2018. Written in stone: Public monuments in changing societies. Duke University Press. Levinson’s book brings into sight that the removal of statues occurs for a variety of political reasons and from all parts of the political spectrum. It asks an important question – can a democratic, open and multicultural society memorialise anyone at all, or should a strict neutrality be maintained in public memorialisation practices, or perhaps there should be none of these at all. As it points out, there have been seismic changes in who and what is seen as worthy of memorialising over time, as monuments and commemorations created by past regimes come under critical scrutiny. Drawing on examples from many countries, Levinson explores what kinds of claim the past has on the present, when the present is defined in dramatic opposition to past values. And the book considers if a society can memorialize historical figures and events in ways that are acceptable to all its members.

Lupu, Noam. 2003. Memory vanished, absent, and confined: the countermemorial project in 1980s and 1990s Germany. History and Memory, 15, 2: 130–64. Discusses the German New History movement which was concerned with a usable past in which German identity worked through the experience of Nazism and told a different kind of national history. This later broadened out from Germany and became what has been called the ‘Shoah business’. Lupu looks at countermonuments and the work of James E. Young and others. This discussion is concerned with countermonuments which depend largely on their audience to interpret intention, so they breach the distance between spectator and objects around their reception. It considers silenced archives and the other interesting ideas including the appropriation of victimhood by outsiders and the power of metaphor to close arguments. The countermonument was associated with a particular time period and later came to an end as a social practice and process, because it was unable to “escape the didactics discourse of the monument” p154-). Lupu concludes that “memory and countermemory, monuments and counter monuments, are the same representations of the same memory and belong indeed to the same collective memorial process” (p.158).

Marschall, Sabine. (2010) Landscape of memory: commemorative monuments, memorials and public statuary in post-apartheid South Africa. Leiden: Brill. Marschall has published other interesting contributions on commemorative monuments in the South African context. This book focuses on the visual representation of the past through commemoration and memorialisation, including statues and memorials but also considering museums, public buildings, information centres and other places that record or embody shifts in the public heritage sector post-1994. It explores this through chapters on nine such South African settings in particular.

Marschall, Sabine. 2017. Targeting Statues: Monument “Vandalism” as an Expression of Sociopolitical Protest in South Africa. African Studies Review60(3), pp.203-19. Monuments are both to be seen and become invisibilised over time, but also in particular times they may attract calls to be desecrated because “public commemoration is always based on selective remembering and strategic forgetting” (p.204). The more daring they are, the more they become a target for the expression of anger and discontent. The defacement or destruction of statues in the South African context should not be seen as vandalism but as local events which express political discontents and also include neglect, disrespect, silence and disengagement. This discontent can focus on the monuments of post-apartheid Black commemoration as well as earlier ones. This discussion is part of a wider set of work on public commemoration, memorialisation and statuary in South Africa.

Murray, M (2013) Commemorating and forgetting: challenges for the New South Africa. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Commemorating and Forgetting addresses post-1994 South Africa’s problem of remembrance: how to remember, as well as who to remember. This includes what parts of the past should be recollected in public space and how much to erase. Its particular focus is on how the legacies of white minority rule remain embedded and visible, and consequently what to do about them.

Ndletyana, Mcebisi, and Denver A. Webb. 2017. “Social divisions carved in stone or cenotaphs to a new identity? Policy for memorials, monuments and statues in a democratic South Africa.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 23, no. 2: 97-110. This article is concerned with how the 2015 Rhodes Must Fall protests raised the seeming failure of official policy on heritage and commemoration. It links this to what it calls the stunted transformation of South Africa post-1994 and the need for a more open debate on the politics of heritage and conflicting view on what this should consist of. It considers the role of the National Heritage Council and earlier state agencies like SAHRA. It asks “how statues and memorials can best represent South Africa’s identity, values and aspirations or whether policy processes will remain ossified in the past, forever memorialising what might have been” (p108).

Anitra Nettleton and Mathias Alubafi Fubah. Eds, 2019. Exchanging Symbols: Monuments and Memorials in Post-Apartheid South Africa. South Africa: Sun Press. Nettleton and Fubah‘s collection stems from an initiative by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council, undertaken in the wake of Rhodes Must Fall protests there, and specifically the focus on statues and other forms of memorialisation that can be associated with colonialism. The composing chapters are something of a mixed bag intellectually speaking, with some perceiving a dominating discourse which requires decolonialisation, others focusing on what is seen as a complex nexus of interests at work, to have produced the commemorative landscape as it presently exists. And this is now some 25+ years or more of an ANC government following the 1994 free elections, so post-apartheid policies also need to be considered, and thus the book’s sub-title, ‘monuments and memorials in post-apartheid South Africa‘. Swartz, Roberts, Gordon & Struwig‘s ‘Statues of liberty’ is a very useful discussion of a large-scale representative sample piece of research looking at who favours what policy regarding existing South African monuments and memorials. Among other gems it shows that it is less the young and much more people of different age groups with political affiliation with the EFF who largely support removal and destruction. Sipokazi Madida’s ‘Troubling statues’ is a fascinating and indeed ground-breaking analysis of the troubled monumental landscape in South Africa, using what she refers to as ‘the post-apartheid memorial complex’ to investigate and analyse the competing interests and approaches to the past that this includes. And Fubah and Ndinda’s ‘Struggle heroes and heroines statues in Tshwane’ explores a case study of historical and contemporary symbols of statues and monuments in the former Pretoria. It focuses on a project involving hundreds of bronze statues of people known as ‘the freedom walk‘, and sees this as both a continuation and a disruption of earlier memorialisation practices.

Olin, Robert S. Nelson Margaret Rose. eds 2003. Monuments and memory, made and unmade. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. An edited collection on the theme of how monuments preserve memory. Its chapters explore many examples in relation to how they represent and use time.

Schwartz, Barry. 1997. “Collective memory and history: How Abraham Lincoln became a symbol of racial equality.”  Sociological Quarterly 38, no. 3: 469-96. Using the example of the Lincoln Memorial, this article explores the relationship between collective memory and history, including by “recognising commemoration as an entity in itself – the system of interlocking symbols to which people turn to comprehend the world” (p.471). It treats commemoration as a force in itself and commemorative objects as existing in a commemorative network, so that they never stand alone but occupy a field along with other people and events, some in harmony and some in conflict.

Liz Stanley. 2006. Mourning Becomes…  Post/ Memory & Commemoration of the Concentration Camps of the South African War. Manchester: Manchester University Press. The entire book is concerned with memory and its embodiment in commemorative practices and commemorative sites. Chapter 6, ‘Onthou! Commemoration & the legendary topography’ uses Bahktin’s idea of the chronotope in relation to Halbwachs’s work on legendary topographies and how they are created, and it sets out the definitional characteristics of the nationalist chronotope as made material in the commemorative landscape of the concentration camps of the South African War. Among other concerns, it shows how overlaid the ethically/politically good and the ethically/politically dubious can be within commemorative practices concerning how the past is remembered and given shape in the present.

Stoltz, J. 2015. 28 October. ‘History is not for the Sensitive – HASA comments on the Rhodes Statue Saga’. The Heritage Portal [Online], 28 Oct, Available: [30 June 2020]. The Heritage Portal is the key provision of the South African Heritage Association and offers informed fact and commentary on relevant topics. This article argues in favour of not trying to rewrite the past but to see monuments, memorials and statutory that is politically and ethically dubious as part and parcel of the heritage of the society. Stoltz writing in his official capacity states that “We also reconfirm HASA’s firm belief that heritage, or more specifically the “national estate” – as described in the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA) of 1999 – must serve to reconcile the past, heal divisions and advance the interests of social justice and cultural restitution. Without a broadly shared consensus on how we deal with our troubled past and the monuments and landscapes associated with our deeply painful histories, we will continuously get stuck without seeing a way forward. … It is in this respect that we are uncomfortable with some of the public comments made to date.”

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 2012. Time maps: Collective memory and the social shape of the past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. How is the past envisioned by people? Drawing rather loosely on Halbwachs’s idea of collective memory, this book is a psychological consideration of the mental strategies used to organise the past in people’s minds, in particular regarding conflicting interpretations of history. Among other things, it explores how people tie discontinuous events together into stories; how people understand how the local and national as linked through genealogies; and how separate distinct historical periods are delineated around the idea of watersheds.

Last updated: 09 July 2020



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