After Charlottesville

Sharon Heal, 21.08.2017
Museums are trusted places where difficult histories can be discussed
It is interesting that in the wake of the Charlottesville atrocity there have been calls on social media to put the offending Confederate statues in museums, rather than tearing them down and destroying them.

Some commentators seem to think this is because museums are not public spaces and that the statues won't offend anyone if hidden away from the public gaze inside a museum and can be kept safe for history there.

The Confederate statues are viewed by many as symbols of slavery and tributes to those who actively fought and campaigned against the ending of slavery.

They have come to symbolise racial oppression and segregation and it’s no coincidence that many of them were erected during the civil rights era as an ostentatious protest against the movement for equality. As such they are more than mere historical monuments, they are reminders of the discrimination and racism that continues in America today.

President Trump's view that removing the "beautiful" statues would rip apart the history and culture of the United States is inflammatory and bigoted. But of course it's easy to comment on events there from this side of the Atlantic.

The UK’s historical record is hardly blemish-free and there are plenty of statues here of figures that have supported brutality and repression: Edinburgh’s Melville Monument to Henry Dundas, Oxford’s Cecil Rhodes or London’s Clive of India.

Removing statues is not about whitewashing history or cultural revisionism. It's about not celebrating and venerating the figureheads of oppression.

Museums in Charlottesville and across America have already responded to the events on their doorstep. The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection issued a statement reinforcing its commitment to countering racism and providing a safe and inclusive space.

Elsewhere the US Holocaust Memorial Museum has put a history of the swastika on its home page.

Museums such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture are capturing contemporary protest and campaigns such as Black Lives Matter.

History can’t be unwritten and neither should it be hidden away or ignored. Museums are exactly the safe and trusted places where difficult histories can be discussed. But they don’t need to display the icons of oppression in order to have that debate.


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25.08.2017, 00:22
Sometimes commentators do mistake museums for the dustbins of history or as places to put items that they are not quite sure what to do with any more. However, we do seem to be getting a bit confused as a profession. One minute saying we should tackle difficult subjects and then the next minute turning our noses up at controversial statues.

Museums are about people and objects and the stories that objects tell about people. If we are going to ditch the objects and just be places we debate issues. Well, we can save a whole lot of cash, shut the entrance doors and all pop down to the nearest cafe with anyone who cares to join us.
Taking a curatorial point of view, I would want to know about the provenance of the statues, why they were made, what they have meant for different people, do some oral history, get some first person films made, choose a selection that together tell the whole story as best possible and then the rest can be melted down for scrap, if that is what people want. Of course, a statue could just as easily be moved somewhere and acquire a new meaning.
Museums should aim for something more enlightening and inspiring than being the lowest common denominator safe space as the result could easily be a venn diagram with nothing in the middle. Objects can allow people to come to their own conclusions rather than discussions where all too often a new group think replaces a previous group think as someone else tells you what is right and what is wrong.

As for public statues, even statues of footballers & film stars can be offensive representing the ever increasing inequalities in our society between a wealthy elite and everyone else. Iconoclasm is quite contagious so today's recent installations, who may be found to have feet of clay as well, could be toppled sooner than they expected.
24.08.2017, 10:45
I agree Sharon. If a museum displays a controversial figure from history the context should be made clear and the debates around it honestly laid open for discussion. Where is there a better place for such a discussion than a museum? The problem with the Charlottesville statue of Robert E Lee was that racists were using it as a symbol of their beliefs and as a rallying point and by keeping it in its public place that could be seen as implicit support for those views, which far too many people round there it seems, still do support. The implication with a public statue is that it depicts someone 'on a pedestal' metaphorically as well as physically, someone to be looked up to, and people take it that way. If the statue depicted, say, Julius Caesar, although he's hardly someone to look up to in today's terms, the issues are not live anymore. But with Lee, the issues are as toxic as ever, and to glorify him still is highly inappropriate, offensive and dangerous. It bolsters a legacy of racism which is still quite sufficiently active without anything to exacerbate it.

If the statue is to be kept at all, put it in a museum display about slavery and the civil war, and counter it with a statue of someone on the opposing side. That is not to say Robert E Lee wasn't important, but it is possible to divest him of his celebratory, inflammatory symbolism and replace that with an historical context.