In this strange year of 2020, many people have been caught off guard by the fury of the debate about public monuments.

The past, it seems, is front and centre of our 21st century lives. Terms like “history”, “remembrance”, and other claims over the past seem to be the stuff of revolution and resistance. The stakes are high.

If there’s to be a fruitful conversation and reconciliation, however, there needs to be a greater care for the terms of the debate. Although we often use terms like “history”, “memory’, and “the past” interchangeably, it helps to understand how these terms express very different operations in modern societies.

An analogy I like to use to explain the importance of these terms is the separation of powers we institutionalise in our modern democracies. If government authority is separated out across different branches — the legislature, executive, and judiciary — to prevent the monopoly and abuse of power, then modern society has similarly “separated” out the authority of the past in different ways.

History is the “branch” of critique; to consider the past “historically” is to try to understand it on its own terms. When we think of “history” we think of the past in a disciplined way — taught in classrooms and lecture halls, composed in books or documentaries, with tweed-wearing historians poking around dusty archives and speaking as experts. We privilege the historian’s objectivity and evidence (or at least, we hope they are aiming for the truth).

The popular adage — we study the past in order to learn lessons for the future — is precisely the opposite of what history offers. History is about showing why the past is a “foreign country”, and radically different to the present.

When we want to “learn from the past”, we are actually entering the domain of “memory”.

Whereas the “history” branch is about creating a sense of distance, memory is where we draw on the past to make sense of ourselves and our future direction. “Memory is history in the first person”, as British historian Ross Poole put it. “To remember” is to identify the personal-plural with the past; “we” remember the past, so that the act of remembrance gives shape to our communal and social identities in the present.

Moreover, remembrance comes with normative suppositions: we remember the past in terms of right and wrong. History adjudicates; memory summons us to action. This is why what we remember makes demands on us, and also becomes a statement of what we value as a society.

The purpose of a public monument or plaque, therefore, is not to critique, but to affirm an aspect of the past. This might be a person or event — the heroic actions of soldiers in a battle, perhaps — to inspire right action; or to recall an act of great evil, like the Holocaust, and celebrate its survivors. It is memory that also compels us to grapple with the moral implications of the past; to reconcile and to make amends.

In this light, the contemporary wave of debate about statues is, importantly, a debate about remembrance and the kinds of lessons we want to draw from the past. Removing or re-locating a public monument is not necessarily an attack on history — and certainly not an obscuring of the past — but a re-negotiation of memory.

We can draw on some of the recent controversies bubbling away in our public life for the past few years to illustrate this.

Last year, for example, the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s voyage to the Pacific in 1769 was the centre of a vitriolic debate in Britain and its former empire. American observers might draw parallels to the commemoration of another European explorer, Christopher Columbus, whose 500th anniversary in 1992 provoked an even greater furore.

To think of Cook and Columbus “historically” — in terms of history — we seek to contextualise them in their time and place. We try to understand the forces and motivations that shaped their lives. We try our best to judge them, not by our modern standards, but by the standards of their own time and place. “Context” becomes key to understanding.

Over the centuries, communities and societies used the memory of these men to understand their own political and cultural stories. In Australia and New Zealand, statues of Captain Cook appeared throughout the 20th century, as the descendants of British settlers claimed him a kind of ancestral figure, “the great discoverer”, who linked small colonies in the Pacific to a grand story of empire and progress. As someone who climbed the ranks of the British navy on his own merits rather than class, Cook appealed to the sense of Australians and New Zealanders as a “classless” society.

Columbus filled a similar function in American societies; a neat founder to mark the “beginning” of civilisation. In the United States, Catholic migrants promoted the memorialisation of Columbus as a way of pushing back against the dominant narrative of the US as a society of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In much the way that Confederate statues were raised in the Jim Crow era as very public and very contemporary statements against Black civil rights, monuments to Cook and Columbus were about a strategy of memory. The past could be used to create a legitimate space — or in the case of the American south, illegitimate — for groups in the present.

Because remembrance is necessarily selective, this public reverence for Cook and Columbus tended to omit discomforting truths. The arrival of Europeans, for example, had ushered in a period of rapid decline for indigenous cultures. In First Nations, Māori or Aboriginal communities, “discovery” was remembered quite differently, as “invasion”, and invocations of “civilisation” as condescending and racist.

Understood in these terms, we can take some of the sting out of contemporary debates. We can recognise that protests against public monuments are an expression of frustration and discontent towards the ways that communities and groups have remembered the past over the centuries. On the other hand, to defend a given monument or statue means to make the case for why the memory of a particular person or event is valuable for communities in the present.

This is why, as Michael Cook recently satirised in MercatorNet, we don’t see protest movements calling for the removal of the Colosseum. It’s easier to treat these ancient monuments as history, because we do not feel the pull of memory. We can know the history of a dead society, but we can never claim its memory.

Conversely, remembrance is the act of a living culture. A contest over memory is a sign of vibrancy, purpose, and direction. A society that checks out of remembrance will struggle to maintain its coherence, let alone one that can adapt and change. This also shows us how commemoration and remembrance can be a source of reconciliation and renewal.

In fact, the process that we’re seeing now of some monuments removed and placed in museums could be thought of as akin to what we have seen done over the centuries with classical monuments like the Coliseum or statues of Caesar and Cicero; sifting through artefacts of a dead history or a living memory.

Like the importance of civics education in democracy, understanding the distinct branches of history and memory in our social uses of the past is crucial to fruitful public debate. Just as authority can be abused, history and memory are malleable and prone to leakage. The historian can become an activist of memory; the emotional pull of remembrance can overthrow calls for historical nuance.

Fundamentally, we need to cultivate both in our modern society: the skills and knowledge of critique that history provides and the passion and moral demands of memory.

Rowan Light

Rowan Light

Rowan Light is a historian of memory and commemoration, and honorary academic at the University of Auckland. He completed his History PhD in 2019 on the history of Anzac Day.