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Colonial Statues on Twentieth-Century Film

Still from Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003).
Credit: X-Filme Creative Pool. Distributed by X Verleih AG (through Warner Bros.)

Introduction

Of all the films I’ve watched throughout my life, Wolfgang Becker’s Goodbye Lenin! (2003), a tragicomic story of an East German family living through German reunification in the 1990s, has stayed in my memory the most. I’m not sure exactly why: it might be Yann Tiersen’s touching soundtrack that moves between the melancholic and the joyful, the sense of this ordinary family navigating the winds of historical change, or the conflicting feelings that come from the transition from socialism to capitalism as history dramatically shifts gears. One particularly evocative scene in the film depicts a broken statue of Lenin being flown by helicopter past the family’s mother Christiane, who stands looking on, absolutely stunned at what she is witnessing.

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Repatriating Colonial Statues in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

Photograph of Queen Victoria’s statue in Jamaica in 1907.
Image credit: Wikimedia / York Museums Trust.

Restitution and repatriation of objects looted (from the Hindi lūṭ, or ‘to rob’) by European imperial powers has been a key aim of decolonisation campaigns across the planet, with the focus on pressuring European countries like Britain and France to return stolen colonial items to their home countries. Tracing the afterlives of colonial statues, however, reveals a different and little-known history of repatriation: that of colonial statues themselves. This blog post is about the history of Britain’s attempts to recover and repatriate statues from its former colonies as imperial rule began to crumble.

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The statuesque, the imperfect female body and fun in the archives

I finally found time in January this year 2024 to take myself to Reading, to explore the Tweed archive, the collection of private papers, sketchbooks and artefacts deposited by the daughters of the sculptor John Tweed in Reading Museum in 1968. I received a wonderful welcome from the art curator and her team, as she gave up an entire day in order to accompany me to the museum store and literally walk me through the materials. This of course, is the reality of research in smaller, regional archives and museums, there is rarely dedicated staff available to facilitate research and access depends on the generosity of very busy staff with many other things to do. However, when one does secure the time of such colleagues, the depth of knowledge that they can offer about the area is a resource in its own right.

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Roman-style statues as an exercise of colonial power in Britain

Illustration via College Hill Independent, used with artist’s permission.

Roman-style statues are frequently at the forefront of toppling campaigns and contemporary conversations about the role of monuments in upholding or glorifying colonial, Confederate, or capitalist values and ideology. However, the actual style of these statues, and their relationship to other monuments and architecture in their built environment, is rarely cited as a reason for removal. Yet the choice to render colonial statues in a Roman style speaks to the values and ideologies those statues are meant to represent, and reflects a broader tradition of using Classically-inspired or Roman-style architecture and monuments to demonstrate where power lies, and with whom.

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Against Kulturpessimismus: A Plea for a Christmas Truce

Artist’s illustration of the Christmas Truce of 1914
The Illustrated London News, January 9 1915.
Image credit: Wikipedia

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold
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Colonial Statues, Public Space and Masculinity in Postcolonial Britain

Introduction

The statues mapped across Britain and France as part of the Cast in Stone project have frequently been the source of controversy for their links to slavery, colonialism and racism. In this blog post, however, I would like to use colonial statues to open up a different set of conversations arounds gender and masculinity in postcolonial Britain. For if ‘everyday life is an arena of gender politics, not an escape from it’, as R. W. Connell put in in their pathbreaking work Masculinities (2005), then we need to interrogate public space as a key site in which masculinities, old and new, are represented, performed, and negotiated with across contemporary British life.

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Absent in plain sight: Robert Clive in Shrewsbury

This week, I finally found the opportunity to take myself to Shrewsbury to undertake research on the history of the statue of Robert Clive situated in this historic market town in county Shropshire, near the border with Wales. The trip opened up as many questions as it answered.

Shrewsbury is a beautiful town, enclosed in a meander loop of the River Severn. The station building itself is gorgeous, with little decorative stars lined up on the top of the stone front – there must be a technical name for this, but I have no idea. The historic centre, a mere ten minutes walk from the station, boasts narrow cobbled streets with seriously odd names (Grope Street, for one), and many well preserved Tudor shop and house fronts, now also bearing signs for the best high street brands. The Shropshire Library and Archives is in a gorgeous old building too, just a minute’s walk from the station.

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Redver Buller’s Empire

Alan Lester

The statue of Sir Redvers Buller, a Victorian army commander, in Exeter has recently received a new interpretation board contextualising his career across the British Empire. I played a largely informal role in the project led by Prof Nicola Thomas, which led to that board. In this blog, I tell the story of Buller’s career, fleshing out the content of the new board.

Statue of Redvers Buller, Exeter from the website of Historic England

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Radical archiving: a Wits-Exeter workshop

Archives are about power. Documents, issued by the right authorities and stored in the right places establish truths – about people, events, countries, communities. Being ‘undocumented’ thus implies a dangerous and criminal invisibility – an undocumented person is assumed to be in breach of the law, undeserving of legal protections, even human sympathy: a body out of place.

Since at least the 1980s, historians, art historians, anthropologists and linguists (among others) have been thinking about the archives a bit more sceptically. Many now acknowledge a broad archival turn, which means that we are more aware than before that archives are not just neutral sources of facts. They are actually created by people in power to tell certain stories, and in many cases, those stories become so powerful that most people can only think in those terms, including those who are depicted unfairly and inaccurately in them. While this has made many scholars feel that archives are tools of oppression, others have noted efforts to harness the power of documentation, in order to tell other stories, to claim space.

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Governing Heritage, Creating Legacies

Workshop in Exeter, 18-19 April 2023

A wonderful two days with participants from heritage institutions, museum professionals, universities, artistic and activist communities, and data activists.

Description

Heritage (and patrimoine, in French), as a concept and practice, is hemmed in by law on one side and kinship on the other. Closely related to ‘inheritance’, it suggests valuable property that can be owned, enjoyed and transferred inter-generationally, and is protected by rules and institutions. When heritage gains official status, such rules are fully or partially determined, enforced and adjudicated by state institutions and their violation can lead to civil and criminal penalties. What can be inherited necessarily suggests exclusivity – property moves along bloodlines, assumes affinity and evokes affect or emotions.