The early evening of May 14, 2018 saw a contingent of twenty Museum Detoxers sitting en masse on the straight-backed pews of the Emmanuel Centre, a few doors down from the beating heart of UK politics in Westminster. We were there to attend a debate entitled Revere or Remove? The Battle Over Statues, Heritage and History. The event was hosted by Intelligence Squared – “the world’s premier forum for debate and intelligent discussion” – in partnership with Historic England, the non-governmental executive arm of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, tasked with protecting England’s historic environment.
“Statues and memorials to famous figures of the past adorn our towns and cities,” they posited. “But what should be done when some of these figures have come to be seen by many people as controversial symbols of oppression and discrimination?” The panellists were four historians: David Olusoga, Afua Hirsch on one side, Tiffany Jenkins and Peter Frankopan on the other, with their chair, Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, appearing in the role of the Rocks of Gibraltar. Freedland framed the debate by referencing activism around the removal or maintenance of public statues, particularly Rhodes Must Fall (including the movement at Oxford University) and protests around statues of US Confederate leaders which culminated in the death of an anti-facist protester in Charlottesville last year.
Freedland posed a number of questions to the panel over the course of the debate: Which statues would you choose to remove? Do statues matter? Would adding statues of more different kinds of people help? Or do some statues have to come down? The responses from Olusoga and Hirsch, the ‘remove’ side of the debate, ranged from the need to remove statues of unambiguously morally bad people, for example the statue of slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, to revising the history of slavery in Britain so that more ambiguous figures (Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, pretty much everyone else) can be better understood today in a the context of both historic and contemporary racism. By rights, the views of their opponents, Jenkins and Frankopan should be called ‘revere’ in the context of the title of the debate. Their answers, though, can better be describe as ‘maintain’ in what was a consistent argument for keeping things the way they are. Both held that statues are far from important in contemporary society. “We don’t look at statues,” said Frankopan. Jenkins advocated benign neglect as a course of (in)action, allowing statues to fall into disrepair. Frankopan considered that the best and only course of action was to have more historians doing more work in other areas of history, so as to better contextualise the position of Britain and Europe in global history.
So, what to do? The trouble with the format of a debate is that it forces us to consider an issue in black and white. Whatever common ground there is – and there is usually a lot – is ignored, and straw man and ad hominem positions abound instead. It is painfully easy to have two opposing sides of what is supposed to be the same debate talking at cross purposes, and that is exactly what happened here. The reason why and how this happened in this particular debate is of particular interest to us as people of colour working in UK museums.
In her seminal book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Renni-Eddo Lodge describes one of the aspects of white privilege as having the choice to look away from the subject of ‘race’. Jenkins’ and Frankopan’s position in this debate is as classic an example of this as you could wish to find. In an appallingly poor choice of phrase, Jenkins maintained that by ‘limiting’ ourselves to a race critical view of the past we run the risk of “enslaving ourselves to the past.” Frankopan dismissed Olusoga’s and Hirsch’s positions as “navel-gazing.” “There is,” he said, “a whole world of history out there for us to learn about.” Why limit ourselves to thinking critically about the history of ‘race’?
The question which remained unanswered in a 90-minute long debate about how we should or should not choose to memorialise our history, is exactly who are ‘we’? The fact that Hirsch and Olusoga, two historians of colour, were seated opposite — physically and metaphorically — two white historians was a distinction lost on nobody. (This distinction can be drawn further, both Hirsch and Olusoga are popular historians while Frankopan and Jenkins are, thankfully, only academics). Over the course of the evening, it became abundantly clear that Frankopan and Jenkins are able to look away from ‘race’ in a way that we, as people of colour who work in museums, are not. Worse, the encourage everyone else to do the same.
We, however, choose not to look away. What we as people of colour who work in museums are able to do is to influence and change museum practice beyond the realms of debate. As an Indian British Curator working at England’s third oldest university, this continues to be my experience and mission. My new latest exhibition, Bricks + Mortals tells the story of how eugenics was established as a science at UCL and how we, at the university, have chosen to remember and commemorate that history. The exhibition exists in two forms: a physical intervention of interpretation panels in the windows of UCL buildings named for famous eugenicists is accompanied by a podcast walking tour. The exhibition uses straightforward didactic language to point out the racism and colonialism of people in the past. The podcast, which runs to just over fifty minutes, considers these histories in greater detail and in a more conversational tone. By adding different media to the same discussion, there is room added for doubt, and there is room added to consider the discussion in more nuanced terms. The goal is that, by acknowledging its history, UCL as a whole will be better placed to reflect on that history and, in turn, change who and what we are as an academic institution.
The debates run by Intelligence Squared may be intelligent, but that doesn’t make them useful. The ways in which we talk about things matter as much as the things we are saying, and any good historian knows that history in constantly being revised. That history is as much ours as it is anyone else’s. As such, we shouldn’t be about winning the debate, we should be about making a change.
Subhadra Das is a historian, history of science communicator, comedian, writer and museum curator at UCL Culture where she works with the UCL Pathology and Science Collections. She regularly talks to diverse audiences in classes, seminars, lectures, public talks and stand-up comedy about all aspects of her work from collections management to working with human remains. Her main area of research is the history of science and medicine in the 19th and 20th Centuries, specifically the history of scientific racism. She uses museum objects to tell decolonial stories in engaging and affirming ways.