The Contested Histories Project: A response to the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities’ open letter on symbols in public spaces

A statue of King Leopold II of Belgium was set alight and covered in red paint. Antwerp, 4 June 2020.

Whether in the context of the West reckoning with its colonial past or former Soviet states reconciling antagonistic historical narratives to recover or reaffirm their own distinct identities, over the past three decades, contested histories have increasingly served as a flashpoint for conflict. 

Last Friday, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities issued a letter on symbols in public spaces to Ambassadors of 57 OSCE Participating States that underscores the importance of respecting the ways individuals relate themselves to history when attempting to resolve contestations around historical legacies. The institution of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities is an instrument of conflict prevention at the earliest possible stage. Its mandate involves containing and de-escalating tensions involving national minorities by providing early warning and early action where a situation has the potential to turn into a conflict.

The Grandstand, Budapest. A replica of the tribune serves as the pedestal for the 8-meter-tall bronze statue of Soviet party secretary, head of state, and general Stalin. A crowd revolting against the communist regime sawed the statue at its knees and pulled it down. The General’s boots remain as a reminder.

In this letter, the High Commissioner highlighted his own experience engaging with groups throughout the OSCE region where opposing perceptions of history and their tangible, public representations have led to instability. It is understood that differing interpretations of historical legacies can exacerbate internal tensions and that the exploitation of memory can have geopolitical implications, spurring the involvement of kin-states in domestic issues of sovereign states. To contribute to greater societal cohesiveness and transnational security, the HCNM supports the establishment of consultative processes with clear mandates that include representatives from aggrieved groups.

The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation’s Contested Histories project understands that, in almost all cases, calls for the removal of statues, renaming of streets, and reframing of school or university curricula, are symptomatic of deeper divisions within societies. Confronted with public protests and social media campaigns, decision-makers often respond in haste, out of panic, and without the benefit of established principles, processes, or best practices. This results in inadequate, ineffective, or arbitrary remedies with unintended long-term consequences, including but not limited to ‘whitewashing’, i.e., purposeful public forgetting of traumatic events and contentious figures, through erasure (destruction or removal). This failure to engage society in critical discourse about historical traumas can fuel further conflict. 

In recent articles published by EuroClio, Le Monde, and Novoye Vremya, the Contested Histories team presented possible solutions for such contestations over monuments, among them remedies that facilitate important educational discussions and contribute to raising awareness of historical wrongdoings. Placarding, additive elements, and counter monuments are just a few examples of remedies that can serve to contextualize historical legacies and foster debate and discussion. Removal and destruction are underscored as tools of last resort reserved for extreme cases. The CH team stands firmly behind the idea that erasure of scars on a community’s landscape alone cannot conceal or heal the influence of ones on the public’s psyche.

Read the full text of the High Commissioner’s Open letter on symbols in public spaces here.

 

 

A statue of Edward Colston thrown into Bristol Harbor, UK. 7 June 2020.

About the Contested Histories project

The Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation is a research center at EuroClio that works in cooperation with a range of public, private, and independent institutions.

The Contested Histories project seeks to identify, document, and examine cases of contestation around the world with the goal of identifying a set of principles, processes, and best practices that inform decision making. To this end, the IHJR has identified and conducted research on more than a hundred cases in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the Americas. At present, an interactive web platform that will host a digital map and related database is under construction and will soon be accessible to a wide range of stakeholders. Although each case is unique and underlying causes are context-specific, the CH team is confident that the aggregated materials will (a) provide insights that facilitate better-informed decision making in response to future contestations and (b) serve as a resource for educators interested in examining multi-perspective approaches to history education.

Follow the work of the Contested Histories project here

Rhodes Must Fall Oxford, an iconic case to launch Contested Histories Series

Grace Sahota Articles , , ,

We are pleased to present the case on The Legacy of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford as the first in a series of in-depth studies for the Contested Histories Initiative. We hope that this series will provide insights and lessons learned for engaging with and addressing instances of disputed historical legacies in public spaces.

Rhodes at Oxford is an iconic case in our catalogue of more than 160 cases globally. It relates to the #RhodesMustFall movement, which began at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and saw a prominent statue of Cecil Rhodes defaced and removed from the campus in 2015. The movement has since spread to the University of Oxford, UK, where Rhodes’ legacy remains an unresolved point of contention. Rhodes, who received an honorary Doctorate in Civil Law from the University in 1899, was a principal figure in the diamond mining industry in South Africa, frequently divided public opinion–both in his own time and today–for his racist views and imperialist morals.

(Photo credit: John Merrington, 9/6/2020 Oxford protests)

His legacy is most visible at his erstwhile college, Oriel, where a statue to his honour decorates the building on High Street. Additionally, the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship and Rhodes House, where the scholarship is administered, also bear his name. Rhodes also acted as a benefactor to the University of Oxford, leaving £100,000 to the College in his will.

Movements that call for the removal of objects such as statues, often referred to as fallist movements, use the object as a symbol to raise awareness of historical injustices and campaign more broadly for social justice. The RMFOxford movement is “determined to decolonise the space, the curriculum, and the institutional memory at, and to fight intersectional oppression within, Oxford”, stating that “statues and symbols matter; they are a means through which communities express their values. The normalised glorification of a man who for so many is a symbol of their historical oppression is a tacit admission that – as it stands – Oxford does not consider their history to be important.” The movement garnered national media attention and led to heated discussions over historical revisionism and the erasure of history, the complexity of historical figures and embedded racism and colonial legacies in UK society.

Most recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US and across Europe has stimulated momentum for many disputed statues and monuments that pay homage to historical figures associated with colonialism, imperialism and slavery, and which symbolise systemic racism. Rhodes at Oxford is no exception. After the statue of Bristolian slave trader Edward Colston was toppled by protestors, dragged through the streets and dumped in the harbour on Sunday June 7th, a sign was taped to the doors of Oriel College, warning: “Rhodes, you’re next”.

(Photo credit: John Merrington)

Protests were held at Oriel on Tuesday June 9th (pictured above), calling (again) for the removal of Rhodes. Despite claiming to be “deeply committed to equality”, Oriel’s Governing Body remains evasive, stating that they “continue to debate and discuss the issues raised” by the continued presence of Rhodes’ imposing legacy. Meanwhile the chancellor of the University accused student protestors who receive the Rhodes Scholarship of a “bit of hypocrisy”.

Additionally, similar discussions over various colonial and slavery related legacies at higher education institutions and in wider public spaces in the UK have been held in recent years. For example, the legacy of eugenicist Francis Galton at University College London, and inquiries into historical links to slavery at the Universities of Glasgow and Cambridge have garnered media attention. The movement is also present in the United States with legacies of benefactors and historical figures connected with Yale, Harvard and Stanford coming under consideration. Similar fallist movements have also been launched, for example GandhiMustFall at the University of Ghana, LeopoldMustFall in Belgium, and FaidherbeMustFall in France, as well as movements calling for street names to be changed, for example those referencing slave traders in Le Havre, France, Glasgow, Scotland, and Liverpool, England. 

Drawing on more than 160 case studies from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, the Contested Histories project seeks to identify underlying causes for disputes dealing with monuments, memorials, statues, street names, building names and other physical markers of historical legacies. The aim is to distil "best practices" for decision-makers, policy advisors, civil society activists, scholars and other stakeholders faced with similar disputes in their communities or societies. The case studies will also inform the development of educational resources that address disputed historical legacies and highlight the complexity of historical memory. 

Call for images: photographs documenting disputes are central to our research and the team is often constrained by images that are copyrighted. If you have an image of a contested monument, street name, statue or other physical representation of historical legacies in public spaces, please share them with us! Appropriate credits will be given.

For more information and to share images, email info@ihjr.org.

Photo credit cover image: Christopher Hilton, Statue of Cecil Rhodes, High Street frontage of Oriel College, Oxford, CC BY-SA 2.0

Who will deal with the real issues once the statues are out of sight?

EuroClio Articles ,

This week, activists in Europe and the United States attacked statues of historical figures because they are seen as colonialists, imperialists, slave-traders, and racists. Will these symbolic acts result in the structural and systematic changes that are needed? 

Steven Stegers, Marie-Louise Ryback-Jansen, 10 June 2020, The Hague/Berlin

A monumental movement is sweeping the world. Sparked by the death of George Floyd and propelled by widespread public outrage at systemic racism and police brutality, statues that blended into the scenery for the average person have been vandalized, toppled, stomped on, and – in the case of Bristol's Colston statue – dragged through the streets and dumped into the harbor. These acts appear to have brought years of debate about these statues to an abrupt conclusion – they must fall. But is this the most effective measure to achieve the aims protesters are seeking?

Soon after the removal of Colston, a protester left a sign on the doors of Oxford’s Oriel College that read "Rhodes, You're Next". Thousands of protesters are demanding its fall as we write this piece. In Virginia, we witnessed the statue of Columbus set alight and thrown into a lake. The transnational nature and broad applicability of the movement’s message are clear. Related protests have touched numerous countries with a history of racism, imperialism, and colonialism – Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, James Cook in Australia, Leopold II in Belgium, Columbus in Argentina, and Confederate monuments in the United States, to name just a few. 

Many of these figures glorified in stone were heralded for their heroic actions, philanthropy, or other accomplishments without acknowledgment of the human rights violations committed in achieving these deeds. Erected to honour the conquests and wealth that brought their countries and themselves fame, the injustices these “heroes” committed remained for most of their tenure camouflaged, but not for everyone. For many, these statues symbolize the deep systemic and structural inequalities rooted in historical legacies of slavery, racism, colonialism, and imperialism. 

Of all the measures that can be taken to protest controversial statues, removal and destruction are the most extreme. There are in situ remedies that facilitate important educational discussions and contribute to awareness raising of historical wrongdoings. Placarding, additive elements, or counter monuments can serve to contextualize historical legacies, fostering debate and discussion. The statue of Josephine Bonaparte in Martinique, erected in 1859 to honour the French empress in her native land, has been decapitated several times over the last decades for her alleged actions to convince Napoleon to re-instate slavery. She now remains headless and splattered with red paint as a symbol of  France’s culpability in the slave-trade. In 1956, during a revolution in Hungary, 100,000+ protesters destroyed a famous statue of Joseph Stalin, leaving only his giant boots. A monument to these empty boots now stands in the Memento Statue Park in Budapest as a reminder of Soviet occupation. In Paraguay, a statue of Alfredo Stroessner, whose vicious reign of terror lasted from 1954 to 1989, has been crushed into a huge block, face and hands visible, in the place where the original once stood as a reminder of the crimes he committed. Additional remedies include moving statues to museums and including protest signs, images, and videos for display in an exhibition. 

Such measures, however, may not feel sufficient for those outraged by extrajudicial killing, police brutality, and systemic racism against Black people. What is the destruction of stone when compared to destruction of life? The removal of a statue may appear to be the only act that does justice to the severity of the situation. 

There are also those not part of the movement who have chosen to remove statues preemptively. Violating Alabama state law intended to protect memorials, the cities of Mobile and Birmingham have taken down Confederate monuments. The University of Alabama has removed plaques honoring students who served in the Confederate Army and released a statement saying they “will be placed at a more appropriate historical setting”. In Virginia, the removal of a slave auction block and the infamous Robert E. Lee in Richmond is underway. 

Other policy-makers have chosen not to make ad-hoc decisions and opted for research and consultations on how to deal with contentious monuments. We applaud Mayor Sadiq Khan in London and the authorities in England, Scotland, and Wales who decided to form commissions to appraise monuments in their cities or regions. A consultative process with a clear mandate that includes representatives from aggrieved groups can contribute to greater social cohesiveness.

In the long-term, the question remains: what does the removal or erasure of a statue or monument accomplish? It does not alleviate the underlying grievances dividing a society. Without structural changes in justice, policing, social, and educational systems, removal will be a Pyrrhic victory, a purely symbolic act. When the statue is gone, how will we remind the public of past injustices and the connected, pervasive issues that remain? In contrast to the statues that were partially removed, there is nothing to remind people who visit the University of Cape Town of the issues raised by the #RhodesMustFall movement. Whenever a statue is removed, the question should be asked, what should be put in its place? 

There are more than 80 cases in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas of contested histories related to the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, slavery, and racism and an equal number that deal with the legacies of fascism, communism, genocide, human rights violations, sectarian violence, and authoritarian regimes.

Those who suffered from egregious wrongs and their descendants are calling for restorative justice. When their voices remain unheard, they will protest and direct their pain towards the symbolic representations of their trauma – the figures we have placed on pedestals. The fact that these protesters were joined by allies outside their communities this week, gives hope that more sustainable change can be achieved.

Educators, civil society activists, and community leaders each have a responsibility to raise awareness and facilitate open discussion and public debate about contested historical legacies. We, as educators, know that history is not confined to classrooms. Current events provide us with a valuable opportunity to show our students that history and the way we choose to remember it is not about memorizing dates and names, rather it is an evolving process that impacts our lives in ways that truly matter. Failing to teach the past in a multiperspective and inclusive manner will contribute to the silencing of invaluable voices, foment unrest, and leave marginalized members of the public feeling their only recourse is to remove tangible manifestations of whitewashed history. We cannot continue on in this way. 

 

About the authors

Marie-Louise Ryback Jansen, Director, Contested Histories Project, Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation 

Steven Stegers, Executive Director of EuroClio, the European Association of History Educators

 

Acknowledgements

This piece was written with contributions of the staff (Andreas Holtberget, Alice Modena, and Catherine Savitsky) and the team working on the Contested Histories project (Lorraine Besnier, Catalina Gaete, Grace Sahota and Katria Tomko).

Photo credit: Tony Webster (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

Copyright free images that may be useful:


The headless statue of Josephine Bonaparte in Fort-de-France, Martinique. (Terrazo, CC BY 2.0)


Stalin’s boots in Memento Park, Budapest Hungary (Ben, CC BY-ND 2.0)

 

 

 

Monuments Matter: A comment on Bristol

Marie-Louise Jansen Articles ,

Yesterday, protestors in the English port city of Bristol toppled a statue of an 18th Century slave- trader, dragged the life-size bronze through the streets, and heaved it over a stone embankment into the Bristol harbour. Hundreds of Bristol residents looked on and cheered. (See appended link). The statue’s unauthorized removal and disposal appeared to resolve a decades-long debate over Edward Colston, a slave trader and local benefactor, whose name and image are honored throughout the city, including by a statue on central square. "Well that put an end to the debate (unless someone tries to put it back up),” someone observed on Twitter Sunday afternoon. “Slave trader Edward Colston statue taken down in #Bristol #BlackLivesMattters".

The Colston statue “removal” is the most dramatic turn in a series of incidents that have found statues at the center of mass protests over the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by police in Minnesota. Last Saturday, protesters placed a noose around the neck of a statue of a Confederate general and toppled it from its plinth in a park in Richmond, Virginia. A few days earlier, a statue of Philadelphia’s former mayor and police chief, Frank Rizzo, an avowed racist, was removed by the city when the statue became the focus of mass protests, as reported on this blog.

As one of Bristol’s leading slave traders and most generous benefactors, Edward Colston is omnipresent in this southwestern port city. Statues, schools, parks, streets and even pastries bear his name. The main cathedral has a large stained-glass window commemorating Colston, and each year November 13 is celebrated as “Colston Day.” At Colston's Girls' School, the pupils wear “Colston's flower” (chrysanthemum), and during the school ceremony read passages of his will while hearing a sermon on the good Samaritan. They were never told about the 85,000 people enslaved on Royal African Company ships while he was involved with the company.

Bristol’s confrontation with the Edward Colston legacy dates to 1921 when a biography written by Rev Wilkes questioned Bristol’s “cult of Colston”, detailing Colston’s involvement in slavery. It took another 70 years for the controversy to come to broader public attention. In 1998 an activist scrawled the words 'Slave Trader' on the statue's base, and the protest movement became more vocal. In 2015, a new civil society campaign, Countering Colston, was formed, carrying out historical research, cataloguing the various Colston memorializations in the city and publicizing findings in the local press. Countering Colston also lobbied to have the name erased from Colston Hall, the city’s primary music venue, and Colston Primary School.

In 2007 when Nelson Mandela was invited to Bristol to commemorate the bicentennial of the act abolishing the slave trade in Bristol, local activists wrote to the South African president cautioning him that “Bristol is not quite the liberal, multi-racial place it pretends to be”. Mandela declined the invitation. That same year, the BBC reported that the popular Bristol rock band, Massive Attack refused to perform at Colston Hall, where stars like The Beatles, David Bowie, Bob Dylan and others have performed.

Marti Burgess, a Countering Colston activist, and a former trustee of Colston Hall, was instrumental in persuading the board to change the name of the Hall. In April 2017, the trustees voted to rename the venue as part of the refurbishment for its 150th anniversary in 2020. Two petitions circulated opposing the renaming, each gathering circa 5000 names. Dr Joanna Burch-Brown from the University of Bristol, an active member of Countering Colston, analyzed the social media responses, as well as the hundreds of letters submitted to the local press. “Letter-writers argued that removing Colston’s name from Colston Hall amounted to erasing history,” Burch-Brown wrote, summarizing a wide range of arguments, “sanitizing the past, destroying heritage, doing injustice to a great Bristolian, pandering to a politically correct minority, removing decisions about Bristolian heritage from Bristolian hands, ignoring the fact that white people too have been exploited and enslaved, indulging a ‘snowflake’ victim mentality, ignoring more important contemporary issues like ‘modern day slavery’ and FGM, and unfairly blaming British people for slavery when it was Africans who enslaved fellow Africans in the first place.” Burch-Brown cites letter-writers who called the renaming Colston Hall ‘a fascist, Stalinesque and Orwellian rewriting of history.’” 1

The movement was also successful in bringing name change to Colston’s Primary School, which, over a three-month period, held an awareness-raising campaign with the school community, after which they voted to rename the school. Unlike the response to the renaming of Colston Hall, the press reported little negative reaction, due perhaps to the consultative process undertaken by the school administrators. In spring 2018, the new lord mayor of Bristol, Cleo Lake, an activist with Countering Colston, ordered Colston’s portrait removed from her office. “I won’t be comfortable sharing it with the portrait of Colston,” Lake told the press. “As part of my role in campaigning with the Countering Colston team, I also think it’s fitting that I don’t share this office with the portrait.”

Deliberations were also underway for the disposition of the Colston statue until last Sunday when Bristol residents took matters into the their own hands. The city must now decide whether to leave Colston at the bottom of the river, fish the statue out and find it a new home, or “put it back up,” as the Sunday tweet observed, and let the debate go on.

1 Joanna Burch-Brown, “Is it Wrong to Topple Statues& Rename Schools? Journal of Political Theory and Philosophy, 2017 Vol 1: 72-73.

Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons; CC 4.0

Marie-Louise Jansen
Director
Project on Contested Histories in Public Spaces

 

Interested in further exploring the topic of contested monuments? EuroClio has published a source collection that offers various examples from across Europe of controversial monuments and of monuments that represent/commemorate controversial history.