A truly conservative approach to statues, history, and memory
The decision by the Hamilton City Council to remove a statue of its namesake feels like the crest of a great wave that, beginning with the death of George Floyd in Minnesota USA, continues to build momentum for a reckoning with our past – and our future. Like a bad debt that needs to be paid, an open conversation about the way we remember and narrate New Zealand’s past is long overdue.
Many Pākehā responses, so far, point to an underlying fear that we’re being asked to give away much more than just a few statues. A line from George Orwell’s 1984 has been circulating on social media – “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered” – suggesting the removal of the Hamilton statue presages a woke totalitarianism. Other commentators have overnight become stalwart defenders of monuments to the likes of John Bryce, Marmaduke Nixon, and Gustavo von Tempsky; men who New Zealanders have otherwise been happy to forget.
Like a bad debt that needs to be paid, an open conversation about the way we remember and narrate New Zealand’s past is long overdue
Such extremes suggest a reluctance to even open the conversation – that it’s more comfortable to push it to the margins – or a fear that if we give an inch on monuments commemorating people who have done some genuinely terrible things, “they” will lay waste to every good thing from “our” heritage. Above all, these reactions suffer from a paucity of imagination.
On the one hand, if these monuments really are meaningful and worthy of our attention, then we should be prepared to make a specific case. Each statue or monument across the country comes with its own story, and layers of complexity and nuance of a given time and place. It is not enough to simply insist that statues should remain in prominent public spaces because “that’s where they’ve always been.”
There is a lot of history we don’t remember, acknowledge, or commemorate.
On the other hand, the discomfort and disquiet about many of our public monuments is not a recent invention by a newly-woke media or single protest group. Rather than radical change, we can point to patterns of change as far back as 1986 when the National Geographic Board restored the official name of “Taranaki.” More recently, we have seen the calls for a national history curriculum, whakapai for the Crown’s actions at Parihaka, and the removal of non-native trees from Auckland maunga. All of these have been controversial, but speak to a longer-term, deeper recovery of places and real stories that have long been obscured from public view by a simplified, colonial narrative of New Zealand as a successful outpost of the British Empire.
There is a lot of history we don’t remember, acknowledge, or commemorate. The work of history tries to understand the past on its own terms. It is important to acknowledge that some statues in New Zealand were erected by people who had a conquering and “civilising” narrative of race relations. With this historical perspective, we can understand how men who subdued Māori and took Māori land through military violence could be considered heroes by their peers.
The work of history tries to understand the past on its own terms
The work of memory, however, uses the past to make sense of our present. Communities remember not so much a person or an event, but rather what these represent in a given time and place. We select from a moment or a person’s life a single aspect and, in a public monument, reduce it to a freeze-frame in a morality play. What we choose to remember is a statement about what we value.
For example, the name and death of George Floyd has become a symbol of police brutality; “I can’t breathe”, a powerful idiom of racial injustice.
What we choose to remember is a statement about what we value.
Closer to home, Captain James Cook has been reduced in different ways over our history. Generations of Pākehā New Zealanders have lionised him as the great discoverer, representing New Zealand’s “spirit of endeavour,” whereas recent critiques cast him as a cruel, syphilitic pirate.
Memory is important precisely because it’s a way that communities negotiate change over time. “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”, as Edmund Burke wrote. Likewise, a society without the means to debate what kind of people and deeds are commemorated and celebrated in our public spaces is denied a key opportunity to negotiate and speak openly about its own values.
Between history and memory, we know that people are complicated. If we rush to condemn and purge, we risk missing the lessons and nuance of the past. There will be parts of our society today that future generations will look at aghast. Similarly, there are aspects of the things our forebears did and thought that deserve revisiting and reflection.
Memory is important precisely because it’s a way that communities negotiate change over time
However, this plea to appreciate the nuance of human stories can be used to stifle or shut down meaningful debate about the way we remember, and what we do with the inheritance we are gifted by previous generations. It is ridiculous to argue that we must retain every block of carved stone or cast bronze that previous generations put in a certain place. However, this doesn’t mean we should accept the “mob’s veto” over which public art or monuments are raised or removed. It’s crucial we ensure that official modes of consultation and pleas to include both sides don’t become dead ends.
Rather than an Orwellian attack on the historical record, the debate about our public monuments is a challenge to all New Zealanders to renew the “work of memory” that underpins our society. We must be willing to take part in an ongoing conversation about the characters and moments that are good examples of the values we hold as a community, the things we want to celebrate and commemorate. If we refuse and try to stifle dissent, we will merely find ourselves on the sidelines when that discussion inevitably takes place.
We must be willing to take part in an ongoing conversation about the characters and moments that are good examples of the values we hold as a community, the things we want to celebrate and commemorate.
If anything, it’s not that we have too many statues, but too few. As the government moves to consult on the national history curriculum, the statue debate reminds us that our history plays out in far richer ways than just in the classroom; rather, we need to pay attention to the wider “ecosystem” of how we remember the past, from the stories told on marae and among families across New Zealand; to the public spaces of parks, museums, and squares in which many of our monuments reside. We have an opportunity to pay fresh attention to the “infrastructures” of the past that shape our sense of identity and belonging.
We welcome a review of the way we remember our past, and the stories and physical artefacts that we use to remember and communicate the things and characteristics we value. We recognise that removing, altering, or annotating a given public monument is only the start of a process of understanding and doing our history well. This means, above all, being open to a public debate, one that’s extended, messy, volatile – and meaningful.