Since June 2020, several statues of historical figures all over United States and Europe have been torn down. Statues of slave traders, colonizers and Confederate figures have been toppled as a part of the movement against racism and police violence. In Europe, the best-known cases are the removal of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol and several statues of king Leopold II defaced and taken down in Belgium. Tearing down statues is not a new phenomenon, yet it has sparked a great amount of discussion and controversy. The difficult question is: how to remember history without adhering to brutality and oppression?
According to Mataix Ferrándiz, in the current protests around the world, people tearing down statues are seeking to create a new idea and understanding of what and who we are today. Toppling statues is a symbolic, yet a deeply political act that mixes memories and emotions with history. Symbols and rituals are needed as starting points for the creation of an identity, even if that identity is selective and not factually true.
Fairytales or facts?
In the European context, the history behind the statues and monuments represents what Mataix Ferrándiz calls the narrative of “the symbolic roots of the image of Europe”.
“This narrative is generally based on subjective representations of the events portrayed, yet we still hold onto it because we need stories and fairytales. We know about the city of Troy, we know about the Minoans, but the way that their discoverers Schliemann and Evans presented them to us are their representations of these civilizations.“
Ancient Rome with its mythology is so well known that everyone seems to have a story about it. However, as Mataix Ferrándiz reminds us, some of the stories told and believed are not actually true. People tend to have a selective, romanticized perception of the ancient empire, which sometimes tends to overpower its imperialist and brutal aspects. Many of these stories and representations are selected precisely to point out the civilized and glorified aspects of the past. From the late 19th century onwards, archeology was used by elites to (re)discover a common past of a nation, and this past was more often than not carefully selected, glorified and mythologized. This interpretation contributed to legitimizing and affirming European powers.
Remembering and educating
“As an archeologist and historian, I am of the opinion that we should keep the statues standing. I am inclined to think we should preserve and re-interpret, rather than destroy”, Mataix Ferrándiz says.
She thinks that even though some statues remind us of painful things, educating ourselves about the things the represent is usually more beneficial than trying to wipe them out completely. This is partly to ensure that we will never repeat the same tragic mistakes again.
Even though she understands that what is just a statue to one person, can be a symbol of humiliation and oppression to another, Mataix Ferrándiz supports re-interpreting historical monuments and educating people about them, rather than taking them down. History and memory are always strongly interconnected. She takes an example from her native Spain, where Francisco Franco’s remains were removed from the Valley of the Fallen mausoleum last year. However, as Mataix Ferrándiz reminds us, the mausoleum itself is still there. The controversial memorial site was built partly by political prisoners and alongside of it rest tens of thousands of victims of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). She believes that the site should be used as a place to educate people about the Franco period.
“Many monuments carry a deep symbolic meaning and should therefore be left in their place in order for our future generations to learn about the things and events they represent.”
The more information you have, the more objective you can be, Mataix Ferrándiz believes.
Drawing the line
The discussion boils down to the conflict between history and memory. Another important question concerns the chronology or historical time of events. How far back in time should we go so that a painful event or phenomenon does not feel hurtful anymore? Is something that happened 40 years ago more topical and painful than something that happened 400 years ago?
One of the questions at the core of the movement is: Where do we draw the line of destroying objects?
Statues are already widely discussed, but Mataix Ferrándiz takes the example of various buildings all over the world that have been built with either slave labor or with wealth that was drawn from the colonies. Should they be taken down? How about libraries built with money earned from slave trade? In today’s turbulent Europe, several nationalist movements on the rise also have their own symbols, such as flags and statues that glorify problematic people and authoritarian regimes. These can also be very hurtful to people, yet they are not viewed in the same way.
Mataix Ferrándiz gives another example from Spain, relating to the Catalan independence movement. Many in the area do not sympathize with the movement, rendering the movement’s symbols hurtful to a large group of people. As there are always two sides to every story, some Catalans view Spanish national symbols as hurtful and oppressive. The international community, basing their opinion on either of the two narratives of the story, look at these controversial symbols and pick their side in the debate. So, we can ask, why are some symbols tolerated better than others?
United by crises?
Mataix Ferrándiz believes that in this moment, Europe is trying to find a new identity, even if we do not yet know what that identity is. After the Second World War, the continent tried to construct and rebuild something out of the tragedy and sorrow it was collectively facing. Fast forward to today’s Europe and there is neither a collective tragedy nor a common European identity defining us, and therefore different countries seem to be going their own way.
Crises such as wars and pandemics have the power and possibility to bring people together. Although Mataix Ferrándiz is obviously glad that there are no wars going on, she also feels that there is no collective obstacle that would make Europeans want to overcome the disunity together. In Spain, one of the campaigns in the fight against COVID-19 uses the slogan “The virus makes us stronger”. Mataix Ferrándiz is not sure there is truth in that, but she remains hopeful to see what the future brings in to Europe after COVID-19.
Dr. Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz is a post-doctoral researcher in Subproject 1, Law and the Uses of the Past. She is a legal historian and a classical archaeologist whose research focuses on management of cultural heritage and its political and social impact, maritime archaeology, ancient law and legal anthropology.
Find Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz on the University of Helsinki Research Portal.