• Stevie Bee

What to do about those 'pesky' statues

Those who don't know history . . .

Every record has been destroyed, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day-by-day and minute-by-minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

George Orwell, 1984


Statues and other reminders of Australia’s colonial past are in the news again, triggered initially by the protests over the death of George Floyd in the United States, which in turn has reminded Americans of numerous other deaths in interactions with police officers. In Australia — following recent protests highlighting black deaths in custody numbering more than 400 since the royal commission into black death in custody, which ended in 1991 — there are calls to remove statues of James Cook and Arthur Phillip, among others. Some have physically attacked the statues, daubing them with painted messages.


Now, I don’t much care for the statues, particularly ones lauding slave traders and presiding over attempts at genocide. So I wouldn’t particularly fret if they were removed. (However, I do get that some people like them, perhaps less for what they say and represent than their aesthetic appeal.) Leaving that aside, I have a note of caution. I wouldn’t want them and what they represent removed from history. From scrutiny. From discussion. From education.


Here are a few options.


Option 1 (minimum response, but possibly unwieldy)

Keep the statues. But add an explainer right alongside each statue, outlining other perspectives. I don’t know that this would work, though. If it could be kept to a reasonable length and covered different perspectives: the colonialist’s view, the convict’s view and the Indigenous view, for starters. And that’s of course contingent on there being a singular view from each perspective. Would passersby stop to read them? Maybe. School groups and those with time on their hands, such as tourists, might.


Option 2 (quite feasible)

Keep the statues where they are but add statues of or memorials to Indigenous people and present an Indigenous perspective.


Option 3 (probably unlikely)

Remove the statues. Add them as part of a permanent collection (always-on-display) to a museum. Add essays, critiques, videos, podcasts and stories. And maybe run workshops on the different perspectives. History classes could spend time in them. And learn more about how history is recorded, compiled, and constructed, and that there is more than one narrative. Over time, these perspectives would become incorporated into the educational process.

There are bound to be other options.


History is important. As the philosopher Edmund Burke* noted, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Scrubbing the record clean is not the solution. We learn nothing, except perhaps that we may be one step closer to George Orwell’s 1984. Let’s use the debate over statues to redress what has long been a one-sided view of history.


* This is the original quote. George Santayana (1863-1952) in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1, wrote "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It’s a slight modification of one by Edmund Burke (1729-1797) who wrote, "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

32 views2 comments

Subscribe to my blog and get an email when I post a story.