For as long as humanity has engaged in the process of erecting monuments in commemoration of individuals, events and occasions, there have been others intent on tearing them down. In the United States, the waves of hostility currently being directed towards monuments commemorating prominent Confederate soldiers is nothing new. In many respects, protesters in the States are late to the party. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign of 2015 stands out as an obvious forerunner, where students at the University of Cape Town successfully petitioned for the removal of a prominent statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes, an industrialist, colonialist and, one might argue using the popular language of the day, ‘white supremacist’, had been a divisive figure since the end of his life. For students in Cape Town, Rhodes had to go, and so he did. The campaign echoed throughout South Africa, and reached as far as Oxford University in the UK, where a statue of Rhodes looms down from on high, overseeing the movement of all who enter and leave Oriel College. Despite widespread publicity, Oxford University held firm, and left Rhodes on his pedestal, where he remains today. Just because these statues are unpopular and divisive, does not mean that they have to be buried away. So where is the line? In a Conversation article by Jose Antonio Gonzalez Zarandona and César Albarrán Torres, the authors put forward several examples where monuments have been removed or destroyed, largely based on the changing values of those in the shadow of such structures. Nazi iconography and monuments to Franco and Saddam Hussein are cited as examples of where the cultural landscape needed to be changed, in response to associated atrocities. However, these examples are somewhat selective. While fascism seems to be an undercurrent in their examples, the one notable oversight is Italy.
Walking through Rome, it is difficult not to be confronted by fascist iconography. Cross any number of bridges, and dedications to the military power of the Italian fascist army can be found with ease. Meanwhile, military faces peer down from the sides of buildings. Most prominent of all, however, is the architectural landscape of the Foro Italico, formally the Foro Mussolini. Built in the 1930s, this is one of the most remarkable surviving architectural legacies of fascism in Italy. At the heart of the complex, a vast obelisk, along the side of which reads the name ‘Mussolini’.
Contemplating any ‘like for like’ study regarding monuments to controversial figures is fraught with complexity, and I don’t want to try and do that with Mussolini’s architectural legacies, and the tensions boiling over in North America. It is though, important to note, that there are other ways of dealing with controversial architectural landscapes. I have used the Mussolini Obelisk as a university case study for years. While it could, perhaps should, be controversial, it is now largely regarded as a tourist attraction, and of relative neutrality. The obelisk is not a focal point of celebration, or commemoration, but an obscure reminder of a brief period in Italian history. It is also an educational devise.
In the current climate, there is a tendency to tread lightly when it comes to the idea of ‘historical value’ and being able to ‘learn lessons’ from the past. These are arguments frequently rolled out by apologists looking to justify the promotion of damaging narratives. The difficulty I have as a researcher working in the field of heritage, is there is a part of me which ultimately agrees. There is an intrinsic value to all monuments, but it is not a value necessarily derived from the subject matter depicted. Whereas Mussolini erected his own monuments, this is not the case in North America. The introduction of commemorative plaques and statues usually come after the event, and after the death of the subject. Their construction provides an insight to the mind-set of the community responsible for the monument, at that time. Equally, when monuments are attacked, such as the recent removal of the Duke University General Lee statue (following the deliberate removal of part of the face of the statue), they provide further insight into changing mindsets and priorities. Can an argument be made that it is better to leave a statue to be defaced, and allow the story to evolve? It is an argument unlikely to gain much traction with either side of the debate.
In academia, most heritage specialists that I have spoken to about this seem generally united in their position: academic considerations are somewhat irrelevant and should play no real part in the debate. I don’t know if this just troubles me further. There are few occasions when historians find themselves actively supporting the removal of elements of the cultural landscape, and yet that is where we find ourselves. I don’t necessarily disagree, but again, the process must be more complex than the simple removal, or destruction of monuments. The suggestion has been put forward that controversial monuments should be removed to museums, where a controlled narrative can be put forward contextualising such statues. In such an environment, ‘celebration’ is unlikely, while educational value might be retained. There is some form of middle ground in such an approach. For the historian however, there are wider considerations at play. Monuments are not isolated structures, they exert influence over their surrounding landscapes, they control the ‘space’ in which they exist. When we remove a monument, we critically change landscapes, and to fail to record the relationship such monuments have with their surrounds is to do a disservice to their value as historical records (which most monuments, regardless of controversy, by and large are).
So, by all means, tear them down. Great chunks of one of my favourite monuments, the prehistoric henge in Avebury, are missing because the ‘pagan’ landscape failed to fit in with a prevailing Christian narrative. Yet, as much as I lament the missing stones, I acknowledge the gaps as part of the narrative. The critical point is that monuments will always be subject to attack and revision. That which is big, bold and in the public limelight, will often be an easy and obvious target upon which to vent frustrations and anger. At the same time, while the academic community might be eager to fall in line and offer verbal support for such removals, we must surely pause and make the case for the bigger picture. That is not to say we must keep all monuments. That would never be plausible, on grounds of pure practicality if nothing else. But we might offer a word of caution, and insist on full recording, before the sledgehammers fall. Let us think of how we can record for posterity, those monuments which so many are so eager to remove in the present.