The importance of making the signification of monuments visible
It is sometimes easy to not think about the name of the street you are walking or the old statue that you pass in the park. However, their importance is undeniable. Even if we often misread or ignore the meaning of street-names, statues or memorials, living in a city means being part of a constantly changing archive. What does this entail and how does it affect us? Ignoring the meaning of material objects that fill our public spaces is strikingly important if those objects are misrepresentations of histories of exploitation and oppression. Such is the case for statues and monuments. They can cause big questions – or even pain – for thousands of people. It is not enough to add monuments representing a break with the colonial past as they exist in European countries. It is perhaps even more important to address the issue of those monuments that honour leaders who were implicated in European colonial history . The interdisciplinary field of cultural memory studies has been dealing with the controversial and complex issue of how humans collectively remember and forget. This is strongly connected to public space, its organisation and the choices we make in terms of who enters our collective memory and who doesn’t. Who is remembered and who isn’t? This is an urgent topic in connection to the ongoing anti-racism protests, leading to the toppling of colonial monuments all over Europe. It is an important and necessary issue to be discussed both locally and globally.
In his article ‘Amsterdam Memorials, Multiculturalism, and the debate on Dutch identity’, the scholar Jeroen Dewulf, specializing in slavery and Dutch culture, investigates issues around Dutch identity through the lens of memorials that have been built as monuments to an inclusive society in Amsterdam. One of his examples is the Slavery Monument (Slavernijmonument). It was erected in Oosterpark in 2002 – 139 years after the legal abolishment of slavery in the Netherlands. The monument is designed by the Surinamese artist Erwin de Vries and represents the dark past, current resistance and future freedom of the people harmed by the history of slavery.
The opening of the monument in 2002 caused a lot of controversy with regard to the initial idea behind the project. While the monument was supposed to represent an important step toward a non-racist and inclusive society, the ceremony ended up being exclusionary. The queen was invited, which was the reason for having tight security measures, like black plastic fences surrounding the ceremony. That meant that many of the people whose painful? heritage the statue represented were closed off from the ceremony behind fences. As reported at the time, there was a great panic when mounted police charged into the crowd. Thus a monument that was supposed to serve as some kind of an apology for the brutal exploitation caused by colonialism became a place of violence against the descendants of the exploited. This example clearly showed the continuing exclusion of a marginalized group form historical memory; even if the memory concerns that very group . It is testimony to a certain institutionalization of (post-)colonial attitudes that are only thinly veiled by the erection of a memorial. The incident revealed the limitations of of the attempt to address colonialism as a merely historical event on a national level. Even more importantly how much work is still to be done.
Now, 18 years later, the Black Lives Matter protests and the anti-racism activism it has instigated in Europe and elsewhere highlight the urgent need to make institutionalized racism and inequality visible. The photographs of the Slavernijmonument show the newly dressed statue with the Surinamese flag, as part of the movement. This gesture stand for a rejuvenation and appropriation of the memory by the descendants of the victims of colonial barbarism. It brings the power of representation back in the hands of the people, to commemorate the brutality and injustice suffered by their ancestors. At the same time, activists all over Europe are toppling one colonialist monument after the other, making their disgust for the continued glorification of their crimes palpable.
Such is the case in the English town Bristol, where a statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was torn down, dragged, and thrown into the local harbour. This act has put an end to a long debate over whether the statue should be removed or kept as a constant reminder of the dark past of the country. Similarly, in Antwerp, the statue of King Leopold II was put on fire and splashed with red paint. Leopold had been displayed in Belgian history books as a hero who brought prosperity to the country. It is high time for him to be acknowledged as one of the biggest tyrants of Europe responsible for the enslavement and murder of thousands of Congolese people. These are two examples that got a lot of public attention, however dozens similar cases are happening all over Europe.
If presented in a right way can serve as a reminder of the bloody past of European countries.
The toppling of the statues creates a wave of reactions, some supportive of this kind of protesting, others outright rejecting it. There is no easy answer to the question of how to deal with these monuments from the past that glorify oppressors. On the one hand, people rightfully want them removed, because of what they stand for. On the other hand, there are people arguing that it is ever more important to keep those monuments since they have been part of the cultural heritage of the countries for hundreds of years, and what they stand for is an important part of history. Some even claim that these monuments, if presented in a right way can serve as a reminder of the bloody past of European countries. Arguably, if one just tries to erase uncomfortable parts of history, how will younger generations be able to educate themselves to change the future for the better? Still, it is incredibly important that people take action to express their outrage about the continued presence of big, old, imposing statues in the centre of the city that honour those responsible for the atrocities of slavery. However, it is also urgent and important to think about what can be created in the place of these statues and how can the past not end up being erased. Despite the decision that will be made on how to deal with historical monstrosities, this discourse further shows the need of social inclusion in the discussion – the need to hear the voices of people, instead of speaking on their behalf.
Dewulf, Jeroen. “Amsterdam Memorials, Multiculturalism, and the Debate on Dutch Identity.” Imagining Global Amsterdam: History, Culture, and Geography in a World City. Ed. Marco de Waard. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012. 239-54.
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