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Why is history never set in stone?

Est. reading time: 8 minutes

July 13th, 2013 a socio-political movement took off across the United States of America. In the aftermath of a controversial judicial decision to acquit Officer George Zimmerman, in the shooting of 17-year-old African American Trayvon Martin, people took to social media platforms with the simple yet powerful statement: #BlackLivesMatter. Momentum gained across the next several years, with demonstrations against police brutality and civil rights violations, the movement was formalised as Black Lives Matter (BLM). Then in 2020, the unlawful death of George Floyd by police reignited the movement not only in America, but across the globe. The movement gathered between 15 to 26 million people in USA, becoming one of the largest movements in United States’ history. Then BLM has seen ramifications and support across the globe and stirred a new stand in the UK. By June 2020, BLM protesters in Bristol dislodged a public sculpture of Edward Colston, a philanthropist who also had connections to the slave trade, and pushed it into a nearby river. Why did the BLM movement shift from protesting police brutality in contemporary society to the destruction of historical figures in public spaces? If there is one thing we all rely on without necessarily giving it much credit, it is our understanding of the past. In many cases, history represents a core ideological narrative of any given society. It can shape our ways of behaving in any social context and represent the roots of many of our values, traditions and beliefs.

The narration of past events represents a fundamental element of the heritage experience, producing meanings and sharing culturally significant values of a nation. Yet we tend to regard history as a fixed immutable asset. We can find comfort in knowing that while our society is constantly evolving, our past lies unchanged. But is this the case? Who wrote the historical records and for what purpose? The old adage ‘history is written by the victors’ has been problematised by the BLM movement and in particular the unquestioned presence of historical figures’ monuments scattered across cities. As the overarching controllers of historical narratives, museums and heritage sites have been actively rethinking past narratives.The heritage scholar Rodney Harrison argues that “heritage is not simply a collection of ‘things’, but instead constitutes the social ‘work’ that individuals and societies undertake to produce the past in the present.” (2013, p.113) In that sense, the BLM movement has certainly challenged the social ‘work’ that past societies created in the commemoration of Edward Colston in public spaces. While it was perhaps an agreed form of narrative in a very different period of time, it might not always reflect the understanding of contemporary societies’ values and beliefs.

The recent events of the BLM movement have highlighted a need for change in the heritage sector and the interoperation of traditional historical narratives. The movement created an opening for a conversation in the UK regarding its commemoration of historical figures. Following the protest in Bristol, an anti-racism group, ‘Topple the Racists’, compiled a list of 78 monuments across the country for reconsideration due to their problematic beliefs or values. The anti-racism group expressed that it should be an opportunity for the UK to face its past and how it shapes our present. Certainly, such movement in the past few years has highlighted a real change in the way we choose to remember our past. But is removing public monuments the correct path forward? Most commonly, heritage organisations can be seen to be beacons for the transmission of nationality and culture, but they also have politically and socially significant elements. Therefore, they occupy a frontline role in the politically charged discourse in today’s society.

It is perhaps time to consider new narratives, left untold for now too long. History is a malleable form of narrative, a subjective selection process of what was considered historically significant, with the remainders left to the footnotes. Those narratives previously deemed not worthy may create new inspirations and perhaps lead to more inclusive representation across the culturally diverse society we inhabit today. History is certainly not set-in stone; it changes over time and is reinterpreted by progressing generations of society. Perhaps, following Harrison’s thoughts, today it is necessary to re-think past social work of historical narratives in the heritage sector.

In the New Town of Edinburgh, St Andrews Square occupies a significant space, central to financial commerce and high-end retail. The square is regularly used for large public events throughout the year and on high holidays. Then central to the Square, a monumental pillar creates a focal point for visitors and upon its crown stands a sculpture of Sir Henry Dundas. A prominent political figure in 18th Century Scotland, recently the Viscount has come under scrutiny for his beliefs and actions during the Scottish Enlightenment period. Most controversial being his role in the delaying of the abolition of slavery by more than 20 years in Scotland. In response, Edinburgh City Council announced the monument could be used as a platform to share new interpretation to discuss the role of the slave trade in Scotland. This may be an opportunity to share lesser-known narratives associated with the Scottish Enlightenment but also to honor the lives of the many people taken hostage by the slave trade. Historic Environment Scotland, the national charity responsible for over 300 heritage sites in Scotland, took a further stand to address this matter. With the launch of Black History Month, stating “they will be giving extra focus to the achievements of inspirational people and sharing stories that the history books often forgot or intentionally wrote out.” The issues regarding the ideologies of many figures within Scottish history was then extended to philosopher David Hume, as the University of Edinburgh announced their intention to rename David Hume Tower to 40 George Square. This came after several thousand students of the Russell Group member signed an online petition, in which they raised issues with the philosopher’s beliefs in racial superiority and eugenics.

The BLM movement has challenged the strongly anchored practice of interpretation within the heritage sector. For many decades, only a handful of experts ruled the process of remembering, writing and sharing history. This certainly prevented the heritage sector being challenged over its narrative production and perpetuated narrow and contradicted representation of society. In 2020, already an eventful year, we have seen the marches, protests, online and physical discourse highlighting the issues with the established heritage practices in the UK. The Black community and supporters have given the clearest audience feedback ever possibly received by the heritage sector. They have clearly illustrated the heritage experience for people of colour in the UK. What it is to walk around your city, town or village in the shadow of men who believed they were racially superior to you; and to know your local government has literally put them on a pedestal? Or can a prominent statue of David Hume continue to sit comfortably on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile without addressing his views on race? While in Edinburgh, must People of Colour force themselves to be comfortable with monuments, plaques and buildings honoring figures who caused unforgivable pain to their ancestors?

The heritage sector is a space of social construction, giving meanings to our surroundings. By allowing further space for engaging with its audience, but also new narratives, it can certainly answer a real need for new narratives and avoid under-representing or omitting important factors of society. Perhaps, an aspect highlighted by the BLM is how we can engage with past historical narrative and address it in today’s perspectives. Heritage charities, but also universities, city councils and museums are reaching out to engage with various communities in order to co-construct new narratives and re-interpret parts of our history. These efforts towards community led projects and critical heritage approaches, furthermore support the integral role of non-experts to be actors in the production of historical narratives and what we choose to remember (Harrison, 2013; Smith, 2006).

Certainly, it is vast work to be achieved, but while I am writing this article, I am already aware it will be soon part of my own past. Past, present and future are constantly moving alongside. We may have for long ignored the achievements of many and some of the darkest times of our society, it is never too late to speak about it and share it for future generations. In a way, we are all producers of tomorrow’s history, leaving it a constantly evolving field of research, open to new understandings, perspectives and changes. History is thus never set in stone.

 

References:

Harrison, R., (2013) “Heritage, Critical Approaches”, Routledge, London & New York, 1st Edition.

Smith, L., (2006) “Uses of Heritage”, London & New York, Routledge, 1st Edition.

Smith, L., (2014) “Visitor Emotion, Affect and Registers of Engagement at Museums and Heritage Sites”, Conservation in Science in Cultural Heritage, Vol. 14 (2), pp.125-132.

 

Personal photo, Scotland BLM march, 7 June 2020, Edinburgh, messages left after the march in front of the Scottish Parliament

I am a doctoral researcher at the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University, Scotland. I am particularly interested in the interpretation and narration presented in symbolic heritage sites, from its first introduction to its current forms. Being myself French living in Scotland, I am fascinated about multiculturalism, which I personally enjoy on a daily basis. Needless to say, heritage, culture and history are real passions for me.


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