What does Public History have to do with a monument’s fate?

Author: Lucas Avelar is a Master’s student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at Colorado State University, and is part of the Heritage and Teaching of History research team at the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO).
6 June 2020, London
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Black_Lives_Matter_-_49977691057.jpg

The ongoing battle of memories and narratives about the past is not a symptom of our time. It is actually part of a natural and constant process of producing, experiencing, and determining history. Five years ago, the movement called “Rhodes Must Fall” began against the statue of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa. This idea spread across the globe and reached Harvard University, where students began a movement called “Royall Must Fall” and demanded the removal of the Harvard Law School shield. The symbol represented Isaac Royall, who, at the end of his life in the early 19th century, left an endowment to found the law school. These movements are strengthened by increasing historical awareness. Public History should, therefore, be an important key for us to understand our role as citizens in this process: in which ways are monuments, public spaces, cities, and places of memory constantly reinventing and shaping our ideas of citizenship, rights, and social justice?

If Public History is a way of co-producing narratives about the past, it is also another step towards rethinking these places of memory and their roles in projects of nation-building that initially sought to determine which social groups and individuals could and should represent national identities. The monuments crisis today is directly related to a movement of awareness of certain groups about their own past and the way it interferes in the social present. These individuals, subjugated over time, are now also authors of validated and important narratives about the past. Not just a past defined by national borders, but a transnational and decolonial one. The recovery of historical representation and memory that those groups are now seeking can take place in several ways, even violent ones resulting in urban chaos. 

In Richmond, Virginia, the Lee Circle, which is named for the statue of Robert Lee at its center, has been calling attention to citizens and the general community. The statue is one of the Confederate monuments that are now under severe criticism as a result of the strength of recent anti-racism protests and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Symbols of the Confederacy have been persistently used by right-wing and racist Americans to legitimize their relations with the past and their dominance in the present. Monuments like the Robert Lee statue, named after the military official who played a decisive role in the American-Mexican war, are now being questioned as they represent enslavement, trauma, death, and historical erasure to so many Black Americans. 

There has been constant interaction with the monument and the public space itself since the protests began. The statue has become the site of new artistic interventions every day, usually through graffiti and projections of anti-racism phrases and images. The press has been writing about the community that has been based in the park as a way to resist police repression. Lee Circle has then become a public space of gathering and sharing ideas like never before. Protesters posted dozens of memorial placards for Black people who were killed by police officers. Further, the Lee statue is not only at the center of a battle between representations and historical narratives, but also of a court battle. William Gregory, a legal descendent of the persons who gave the Lee statue as property to the state, filed a lawsuit against Virginia’s Governor Northam, who announced that the Confederate statue would be removed soon. 

However, Lee Circle is not an isolated case, and we have been seeing the effects of the monuments crises in different parts of the globe. At Bristol, the statue named after Edward Colston – a figure who is remembered as a philanthropist and famous for his donations to different institutions, such as St Michael’s Hill almshouse, Colston’s Hospital, Temple School for Boys and Bristol Cathedral – was not only the target of artistic interventions but also removed by protesters and thrown into the Avon river.  The understanding of Colston’s role as an enslaver and slave trader has been constantly deepening, as has the collective historical awareness. Black, Indigenous, and People of colour activists have long been pointing out issues around monuments and celebrated historical figures. The contested narrative about Colston motivated this social engagement in the urban space and in its places of memory. Frontline activists have played and continue to play a decisive role in this, but if institutions in power seem to insist on adopting the hegemonic narrative, what part do we historians (especially white historians) play in this process?

If we recognize that these places of memory do not connect with all social individuals, that those who have been erased from the narrative are as much citizens as the so-called “winners” in what is understood to be “traditional” history and have as much a right to the city and the past as those that are historically represented, we understand that their narrative is as valid as their direct interaction with these spaces. Thus, the reinvention of these places and the formulation of a new relationship with the past is valid. Therefore, what is Public History’s role in this movement to decolonize narratives of the past?  

We could acknowledge this role as being a  bridge between those social groups and historical production. Public Historians should be ready to share their authority and put forward decolonial narratives in hegemonic spaces of society. The interaction itself between people and their past should be strengthened by a new understanding of historical production. Such encounters were not necessarily the result of an academic historiography, which has often not cooperated with or acknowledged the public and communities to embrace their narratives. In many occidental countries, the history curriculum still embraces nation-building narratives and representations of the past that have been criticized by frontline activists and minority groups. Those do not need historians’ validation, but the opposite: we actually need them to make a real change in the way we write history. 

The monuments crisis today is the inevitable reckoning between those who have been forgotten or erased and those who have been remembered and celebrated. The reckoning is not a result of public historians’ agency, as they are not always the ones who have been challenging social structures and powerful institutions to change colonial narratives. But when historians make connections from traditional academic environments to a larger process of co-creation, shared authority, and source producing, this reckoning is constantly encouraged, as well as a collective unlearning, from which the terms of democracy, social justice, and citizenship are necessarily reinvented. Encouragement becomes, therefore, a key idea to discuss public historians’ part in the face of social movements that seek to regain public space and the hegemony over the narrative of the past.


Lucas Avelar é mestrando e professor auxiliar na Colorado State University e integra a Linha de Pesquisa em Patrimônio e Ensino de História da Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro simultaneamente. É bacharel e licenciado em História pela Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) e foi estagiário do Departamento de Cultura da Assembleia Legislativa do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, onde realizou mediação cultural para exposições acerca das narrativas republicanas de construção da nação brasileira. Seus interesses de pesquisa envolvem História Pública, Monumentos, História Urbana e Preservação Histórica.

Lucas Avelar is a a Master’s student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at Colorado State University, and is part of the Heritage and Teaching of History research team at the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO). He holds a BA in History from the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and was an intern at the Culture Department of Rio de Janeiro State Parliament, where he held cultural mediation sessions for exhibits about Brazil’s republican nation-build narratives. He is interested in Public History, Monuments, Urban History, and Historical Preservation.


1 Response

  1. Elielso says:

    Maravilhoso!!

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