Learning from the “Vandals”: Histories of Forgetting

June 26, 2020   •   By Yannis Hamilakis

Dear fellow historian, archaeologist, heritage specialist,

Many of you have been watching the current moment with considerable anxiety. It’s challenging, it’s frustrating, it’s mostly confusing and disorienting. Museums and archives out of reach for months, field research on hold, and the next academic and research year looking uncertain, to put it mildly. The center cannot hold. Things fall apart. Things fall, mostly statues: Confederate monuments in the United States, statues of slavers in the United Kingdom, pedestals that display brutal colonial leaders such as Leopold II in Belgium, and figures of Columbus everywhere.

I can hear you. Slavers, you say, fair enough. They deserved to go. But where is this going to end? Is this not an erasure of memory and history? Do we not need a more nuanced response than destruction?

Well, these are legitimate concerns. Things are complicated indeed. For a start, I am glad that the customary reflex among many of us to conserve, to preserve, to treat these statues as historical material in need of protection, seems to be waning. This shift that more and more of us are now embracing, the sense that some statues are legitimate targets and their removal from the public space justified, seems to me another direct and concrete outcome of this global uprising — this extraordinary movement, with Black Lives Matter at its center, that is shaking our world. It is the same movement that is now forcing senior museum and arts establishment figures in the UK to admit that a national museum of slavery, one that foregrounds the UK’s role, is long overdue.

But let me make the most of this opening, and reflect briefly on some of the key concerns. Is this phenomenon a new iconoclasm? Here, we are dealing not with icons and images but with material objects in the public arena. They are made not of perishable materials but of stone and bronze. They are destined to outlast humans, to emit permanence, even eternity. As such, they aim to be above and beyond history. They also act upon humans in specific ways. They are often monumental by design: atop high plinths and pedestals, they look down upon humans, they survey the landscape; they are designed to exercise visual and thus social and political control. As such, they represent not commemoration but domination.

Take the confederate monuments in the United States. Most of them were created long after the end of the Civil War, mostly between the 1890s and 1950s, a trend that coincided with African American organizing and mobilisation. There was another peak of confederate statue installation during the Civil Rights era. From this, we can see that these statues were erected as racist weapons in an on-going struggle, not as historical landmarks and representations, nor as commemorative acts.

These monuments will only become truly historical once they cease to be “heritage weapons” that dominating public space. But what should replace them? Absence, an empty plinth, is much more powerful, evocative of a historical process and open to many possibilities. The fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square was left empty when it was constructed in the mid-19th century, due simply to lack of funds. More recently, it has become a stage hosting temporary sculptures, installations, and performances that often question or even mock the British imperial legacies celebrated by the monuments still standing elsewhere in the square.

Some of our colleagues have denounced these removals as “purification,” which has clear religious associations but can be also used in other cultural contexts. I have studied the national purifications of monumental landscapes, such as the ones carried out at the Athenian Acropolis since the early 19th century. There, and elsewhere, the intention of the state and its apparatuses, including archaeologists and art historians, has been to reshape the monumental landscape in order to suit a national-colonial dream, one based on homogeneity and national superiority. Any material out of place, be it monuments of non-classical eras or traces of the Ottoman period that invoked the oriental other, had to be erased. On the contrary, it’s neither states nor establishment forces but popular movements that have taken the initiative to remove these statues today, and their intentions are the opposite: to counter superiority and homogenisation.

History and context are fundamental. Take the statue of the 19th century imperialist and ruthless capitalist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard writes that while she does not condone his politics and world view, she does not believe that “Rhodes Must Fall.” She does not see “how we can go on using his money…while planning to throw his image in the Thames.”

Aside from the fact that “his money” was made by the forced labor of Black people in the South African mines, I would argue that it is precisely such fortunes that need to be redirected to reparation projects. As for Rhodes’s statue, Richard Drayton has reminded us in a recent essay that its installation was hugely controversial at the time, in fact a minority view, and part “of a long campaign to launder Rhodes’s reputation.” According to Drayton, Rhodes and his associates “paid for memorials, portraits and statues for him on a Stalinist scale. Many contemporaries thus saw the 1911 new Oriel Buildings — with Rhodes, above kings and bishops, sneering across at the University Church — as vulgar, if not idolatrous, with Evelyn Waugh in 1930 urging it be dynamited.” Heritage, you said? No doubt as a result of the protests, the governors of Oriel College recently voted to remove the statue, although the process will be long and far from straightforward.

Finally, the calls for a nuanced and dispassionate response assume that people who bring down such statues act out of some irrational, almost pathological zeal, thinking that by destroying the statue they solve “the problem.” They also presuppose that these protestors cannot recognize the complexities of human existence.  Mary Beard writes that “too much of this debate has traded on a view of history that divides it into goodies and baddies.” People are complex personalities, she says, and flawed individuals; activists today, it is inferred, are operating under a childish binary mentality.

This accusation is misguided, if not downright patronizing. It contains no mention of colonialism, of the edifice of white supremacy that many of the individuals portrayed by these statues embody, only history as created by “big men” and generous if at times flawed philanthropists. In reality, statues of slavers and racist leaders are targeted not because they embody “bad guys” but because they are important landmarks in a deliberately designed, monumental landscape of racialized, colonial order.

The campaigners and activists know only too well that such a monumental, panoptic landscape is not about remembering. It is about forgetting: erasing the brutal violence upon which such order sits. The toppling of these statues is not a symbolic “killing” of the men (always men) depicted, but rather an attempt to mobilize their figures in the service of a powerful political performance. This performance aims to redirect our attention to the unfinished histories that should haunt us all, inviting us at the same time to embrace an ontology of life that is guided by such haunting.

As for the objects themselves, we should come to recognize that such mobilisation is another chapter in their cultural biography. It adds to their significance as material entities. The protestors’ acts are not pure destruction but creative re-contextualization.

The slaver Colston’s statue, which was thrown into Bristol harbor in the UK, has been already retrieved by some of our colleagues and is being examined as a historical, material object. Conservators will carefully preserve the graffiti left by protesters. It will eventually re-surface, not in a public square nor upon a high pedestal, but in a museum or other similar context where its history, including its recent dive into the harbor, will be examined close-up by visitors. It will be treated as a contested, historical artefact, speaking not only of the British imperial legacy and of the slave trade but also of the attempts to whitewash this legacy in the name of philanthropy.

The movement over the statues is part of a global insurrection that has already achieved significant gains in policy as well as social perception. The participants in these movements are much better informed, and their diverse, affective actions and political theater much more nuanced, than many of our own “rational” responses. We should listen up — we have a lot to learn.


Yannis Hamilakis is the Joukowsky Family Professor of Archaeology and Professor of Modern Greek Studies at Brown University, and a member of the University’s Decolonial Collective on the Migrations of Objects and People. He is a specialist in the politics of material heritage. He recently co-curated the exhibition “Transient Matter: Assemblages of Migration in the Mediterranean.” He tweets @yannishamilakis