Monuments and symbols have the function of bringing people together around an event, of a common tradition, of returning to the past. But when these highlight controversial figures, rethinking monuments and their location in the public square in an era where awareness is manifested becomes necessary, even vital. It is not a matter of trying to remove these characters from history textbooks, but of taking into account the entirety of their actions and their impact on society. Because keeping these statues in public space can be negative.
In 1983, Benedict Anderson demonstrated how the construction of “imagined communities” (nations) was possible thanks to the taking into account of traditions, customs or even monuments allowing a return to the past, necessary for the construction of a collective identity . The collective memory allows cohesion of the whole population around an event, a statue where the relationship to history, to memory, to culture plays a key role.
It is also about marking one’s belonging to a group, to a community that shapes the nation as a whole. They are therefore vectors of values, of ideas on which a society is based where historians and politicians intervene to legitimize and materialize these beliefs through these monuments in the present.
On May 22, in Martinique, the debacle of the statue of Victor Schœlcher stirred the hearts of French local and national politicians. In June, following the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations against police violence which followed, statues bearing the image of Christopher Columbus, Leopold II and even Edward Colston were also targeted by the population. What they all have in common is that they supported the maintenance of slavery and defended a racist ideology.
However, the official history does not seem to mention this part which, however, constitutes the identity card of these characters, generally presented as benefactors of the company having allowed, for example, the economic development of certain areas. The omission of certain information necessary for understanding and building the collective identity of the nation is problematic.
The presence of these statues in public space, in a society where ethnic and cultural diversity is highlighted, represents an affront to certain ethnic communities, whose ancestors suffered the harms of colonization, slavery, racism, denying this colonial past. These effects are still noticeable today with systemic racism.
The events of the past few days have made it possible to question official history and demonstrate that the concealment of part of the history of certain characters is counterproductive. Consequently, these personalities supposed to promote cohesion amount to creating divisions in the construction of collective memory.
But then, how can these faults be remedied? First, it’s important to consider the whole story. It is a question of introducing the hidden parts in the official history to allow a complete construction of the collective memory of the nation. This would integrate the whole population around common traditions and culture. The presence of these statues in the public space being pernicious, one could follow the example of the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who wishes the creation of a commission allowing the reassessment of monuments and statues.
This reconstruction of the collective memory would be possible taking into account the opinion of the population. This would be an additional asset to the political and historical debates surrounding the question of monuments and their meanings in public space. Although a long work of awareness and memory reconstruction is to come, the debate is revived. Monuments are essential for the construction of a collective memory. But for the latter to be a tool for cohesion, a consideration of history in its entirety is more than ever necessary. Because in itself, history is filled with glorious moments, but also with much darker moments.