History isn’t statuesque. It moves

Reflecting on campaigns to remove statues and calls to decolonise, Stephen Stenning argues that heritage only really lives through discussion, interpretation and reinterpretation

Stephen Stenning is British Council Director for Culture in Action

Campaigns to remove statues and plaques have become a regular feature of UK campus life in recent years.

Debates can be fierce, disruptive, divisive, and can often thrust university administrators and governing bodies into the unwelcome glare of a harsh media spotlight.

Yet characterising such conflicts simply as a part of the “culture wars” risks dismissing young people’s genuine passion about the way cultural heritage is presented.

We mustn’t fall into the trap – dismissing an often very healthy emerging desire to re-examine history and its contemporary resonance.

There is a balance to be struck between different sensitivities. Demands from campaigners to decolonialise campuses can sometimes make collective commemorations challenging and the teaching of a standardised curriculum almost impossible.

At the opposite extreme is a desire to freeze campus spaces and the curricula taught within them in time making them increasingly a drift from contemporary life entirely.

The value of cultural heritage

My role overseeing the British Council’s Cultural Heritage work, including the UK Cultural Protection Fund, has highlighted for me the value people all over the world give to, and derive from, their cultural heritage.

It provides a sense of connection with the past, a feeling of constancy; but at the same time, it offers a way to understand the affect that past has had on contemporary values and how it has shaped society.

The British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund was launched in response to Daesh fighters taking sledge-hammers to the world’s treasures in Syria and Iraq. The success of the Fund and the projects it supports means that it now has extended its reach to East Africa and it now supports heritage at risk because of climate change and natural disasters. We have pioneered people-centred approaches to the nurturing and preserving of cultural heritage that support sustainable development.

This means working with communities close to the heritage in question, learning from their expertise and ensuring they lead in determining the impact of the work and the value of the heritage.

The past and the present

One of the more exciting elements of our work is being part of conversations, all around the world, that are about negotiating the traditions and understandings of the past in relation to contemporary life. This seems to be a more difficult and charged debate in the UK. Perhaps, it’s because in the UK, we don’t so readily see ourselves as products of our past, maybe there is less cross-generational interaction or maybe the pace of change encourages an obsessive focus on “the next big thing”.

Although there are complexities and challenges associated with certain campaigns, we should recognise that questioning who is honoured by statues and the naming of buildings is itself a time-honoured tradition. We’ve always been having these conversations, about what (and in some cases who) from the past still has value in the present and provides inspiration for the future.

Let’s try, if we can, to see a commendable recognition of the importance of heritage and celebrate the drive to understand and come to terms with that history.

It was this desire to celebrate and come to terms with history that fuelled a British Council gathering recently held in Kenya, bringing together projects nurturing and

protecting cultural heritage in the Levant, North and East Africa.

My main takeaway was an overwhelming sense that history isn’t over; it isn’t static and is not purely to be experienced through curated exhibitions and dusty artifacts behind the glass of protective cases. It was a reminder that heritage only really lives through discussion, interpretation and reinterpretation.

Right. What’s next?

In the UK it seems we are all too focused on what comes next rather than what came before. This approach can lead to cultural heritage (such a live and vibrant immediate influence across so many countries around the world), appearing to be static and even dead here in the UK.

We need to encourage and engage in more healthy inter-generational dialogue about our history. Neither surrendering to demands to take a hammer to everything that echoes traces of an imperial legacy nor striving to dogmatically encase that past, warts-and-all, in amber forever.

Navigating complex debates to arrive at practical solutions that honour the past, address contemporary concerns in the present and present a vision for the future has been central to our Cultural Protection work for the British Council.

For example, the Book Bunk Project in Kenya focused on renovation of The McMillian Memorial Library. The colonial building and the preservation of its archives and collections has incorporated a re-interpretation of what a library should be in modern Kenya as well as a re-purposing of a building unshackled from its colonial legacy.

Our work with the Institute of Development studies in Egypt, Iraq and Syria uses an approach designed to give young people the skills and tools to research, document and, in some instances, interrogate traditions and practices specific to their heritage. For example, reinterpreting the Coptic tradition of tattooing, a culturally important practice but one often done through unsanitary and unsafe methods.

In many of the projects, particularly those that focus on traditions and practices a focus on difficult discussions about identity, values and what is sustainable has always been part of the process. Those discussions are not academic. They are very live and are led by those who ‘own’ and are living with the heritage.

Having been privileged to be involved in such debates (from Nairobi to Beirut) I am struck by the lack of similar negotiations in the UK.

Keeping debate alive

My background is in the arts as a theatre-maker and writer. I am predictably excited by how much artistic practice appears to be focussed on understanding our past for a more diverse and sustainable future. At the same time, I worry that the room for debate at an academic level and on our campuses is reducing.

I didn’t go to University but I did attend theatre classes, back in the 1970s. My classes were hosted at an institution then known as ‘The Rhodes Centre”, its name, of course, honouring the mining magnate and first minis ter of the South African colonies ‘Cecil Rhodes’. He of ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign fame. These days the institution has been repackaged as “The South Mill Arts Centre”. It was campaigning on behalf of older rather than younger people that brought about the name change in this case. The arts centre in its modern incarnation lives and breathes on.

Encouraging debate about how we present, interpret, and come to terms with difficult bits of our past feels like a part of a realignment. It might also be a backlash against the idea that our shared past needs careful and controlled curating. It is also a challenge to the notion that collections or campus spaces ‘belong’ to those who are charged with their stewardship.

One of the lessons from our heritage work with the British Council is that there is a danger in separating the past from our present and future. We impoverish understanding when we do that.

Campus protests that feel like they are challenging and threatening our cherished sense of identity are perhaps demonstrating that cultural heritage is living and breathing, that history isn’t over and that we are making it all the time. Campuses have always been safe spaces for spirited debates about the past, present and the future let’s work hard to preserve that time honoured tradition above all others.

The views expressed herein are those of the individual author and not necessarily reflective of British Council policy or positions.

3 responses to “History isn’t statuesque. It moves

  1. The line that history is ‘under attack’ is little more than a cynical vote grubbing ploy. Any historian will tell you that the way history is understood and presented is constantly changing. None of this should be remotely controversial. Debating it is precisely what many of those on the right want you to do – it sows division and distracts from very real issues and government failings.

    1. So you are anti-debate?
      How are decisions arrived at about how history is presented that may differ from how it has been presented. ‘Any historian’ won’t tell you anything consistent – each has their own take, and perspective. This doesn’t should not be politicised as a ‘right’ / ‘left’ thing. That leads to tribal beliefs rather than those based on analysis or knowledge. Discussion and debate are essential on university campuses and this should not come from an overtly ideological perspective but one based on academic principles of free speech, analysis, open dispassionate dialogue (the academic way.) I think the article/post is well balanced and don’t think there is anything, on the face of it that is particularly contentious – least of all the call for open debate and discussion.

  2. I too have a theatre background of some 40 years and history makes very rich and vibrant content for contemporary works and will, I believe, continue to do so. Interpretations can be made of past events in keeping with the zeitgheist ideology but history cannot be revised. It can be presented in a number of ways but vast revisions or truncated versions are the creatures of marxist or facist ideologies. Educators should not feel comfortable supporting these twisted histories. Stephen says as much in a fairly gentle and politic manner but nevertheless recognises that universities are no longer the open sources of learning they once were and art as yet to be produced is currently percolating in the minds of the young people subject to the tree stumps of history. Art will be presented as a mangled thing of nothing, representing nothing, enlightening nothing . . . . in the immortal words of Pere Ubu, ” s**************t!

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