Unwanted Histories: The legacies of contested monuments and objects: new homes, new interpretations, new meanings
Abstract deadline: 19 March 2021
The toppling of the statue of/21 Edward Colston into the River Avon in Bristol in June 2020 by Black Lives Matter protestors is symptomatic of a growing dissatisfaction with the presentation of history in public spaces. Likewise, the renaming of the Witte de With Centre for Contemporary Art in Rotterdam into Kunstinstituut Melly, the Leopold Must Fall movement in Belgium and the global Rhodes Must Fall movement capture this shift in public sentiment. Within these societies, we are increasingly unified in our belief that it is time to reflect on how the legacies of colonialism and the Transatlantic slave trade are woven into the very fabric of our towns and cities. However, as the subsequent debate over Colston’s statue indicates, we lack any consensus regarding how to redress these legacies. While we largely acknowledge that these histories should not be forgotten or erased, what does this mean practically speaking? What do we do with these “unwanted histories”?
This concern engrosses politicians, policy-makers, cultural heritage specialists, historians, artists, community groups and the public alike. To date, much scholarship and public discourse has focused on why these histories are unwanted. This conference builds on this debate to ask: what do we do once we’ve toppled statues? Should we leave Colston in his watery grave? Additionally, who should be responsible for these decisions? While these are, at heart, ethical questions, the increasing financial strains faced by the heritage sector frequently transform them into a balancing act between ethics and practicality. Recent responses to these questions demonstrate that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution to these concerns, nor can there be a permanent one. To date, common approaches have included removing or relocating contested objects to museums and providing new interpretative materials; replacing or accompanying them with plaques; placing them in storage; or producing new accompanying artwork. All, however, have faced significant criticism.