Contested Histories in Public Spaces

The IHJR project on Contested Histories in Public Spaces  is a multi-year initiative designed to develop principles, processes, and case studies to help guide decision-makers tasked with responding to contested histories in public spaces in a responsible and effective manner.

Over the past several years there has been growing public controversy over contested historical legacies on university campuses, museums, and in public spaces in towns and cities around the world. The Rhodes Must Fall movement that began in South Africa, the controversy over statues of Robert E. Lee in the US State of Virginia, are but two examples. These movements reflect not only evolving demographics, but also the growing empowerment of previously marginalized voices that are helping redefine our understanding of national identity as reflected in public spaces.

Responses to these controversies have largely been made in haste, occasionally in panic, in the face of public protests or social media campaigns. Virtually all have been taken on an ad hoc basis, some in violation of local and/or national laws. These decisions can erase or alter memory of historical events and figures, essentially reweaving the texture of public memory and transforming the nature and perception of public spaces.

The objective of the Contested Histories in Public Spaces project is to provide decision-makers and advisors from the public, private, and independent sectors (university administrators, municipal officials, museum directors, foundation representatives, etc.) with frameworks for inclusive and informed decision-making, based on value-based principles that help articulate processes and guidelines for responding to contested historical issues in public spaces.

The aim is to promote decision-making that is responsible and effective, that is perceived as fair, rational, and inclusive by the public, and that can defended based on a set of transparent principles and processes.  Integral to the project is the inclusion of civil society advocates who are seeking to effect change within their communities by fostering awareness of what statues, names of streets and buildings, monuments and other physical manifestations of historical figures and events represent today. Only through examination of current and past controversies by stakeholders on all sides of the issues can frameworks for value-based principles be derived, and only through an open, inclusive, and full understanding of historical context can contested narratives be resolved.

The project is being undertaken in partnership with the International Bar Association and Salzburg Global Seminar,  and in cooperation with EUROCLIO in The Hague.

Max Harris opening the conference on Christopher Codrington in the Old Library at All Souls College, Oxford. Harris and co-organizer, Arthur Asseraf (left) are Examination Fellows at All Souls.

Contested Histories: A New Phenomenon?

On the 9th of March 2015, Rhodes Must Fall (RMF), a student-led protest movement, erupted on the campus of the University of Cape Town in South Africa, as students demanded removal of a statue that commemorated the business magnate and ardent support of British imperialism, Cecil Rhodes. Since then, the RMF has expanded to the United Kingdom, with similar movements against historical and racial injustice both in Europe and North America.

In The United States, student protests at institutions of higher education have resulted in demands for the decolonization of curricula, institutional acknowledgement of complicity for past historical injustices, removal of symbols and signage associated with historical wrongs, and greater advocacy for minority welfare and representation on campus.

Contrary to common opinion, issues of colonial legacies and historical injustices had not been absent from student campuses before RMF or RMFO. In University College London, for example, the “Why Is My University White?” (WIMUW) movement was a largely successful campaign to diversify the student body and the curriculum waged in 2014, a year before RMF erupted in South Africa. The UCL campaign had substantial institutional backing and manifested in a new MA program tailored specifically to the issue. WIMUW subsequently spread to other UK universities including LSE and Warwick. In Bristol, grassroots movement to confront the city’s colonial legacies had emerged in 2014 as well. RMF’s contribution has been rather to bring these issues to the forefront of media attention, which has energized formerly latent activists in Europe and America. In the United States, the University of Texas has worked for several decades to overcome its history as a segregated university. In March 2015 the student government voted to remove the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy and a slave owner, prominently placed in the center of campus and relocate it to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History.

On April 9, 2015, a statue of Cecil Rhodes was removed from the campus of Capetown University following student protests related to colonial-era legacies.

Student Radicalism?

A common misconception is that the movement is a manifestation of radical leftist student activists.

Movements that have been successful on the contrary have resource-pooled with members of the faculty and other important figures to lobby the administration. In the University of Missouri, the breaking point was when the college football team, with permission of the football coach, refused to practice until the demands of the student on hunger striker was met. Similarly, in the case of Harvard Law School, it was the combined effort of a committee that included faculty and students, which contributed to the logo change.

Image used in the student protest against slavery-related iconography on the Harvard Law School escutcheon

A Global Phenomenon?

Splinter movements of RMF in South Africa have made attempts to draw legitimacy from the movement by borrowing its language, iconography, terminology, and method of agitation. Attempts have also been made to draw connections to other Social Justice movements relating to minority interests such as the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. These leverage on similar themes such as Black Nationalism and Liberal demands of diversity. For instance, protesters of RMF Oxford have chanted: mandlaawethuthe rallying cry of blacks during the Apartheid movement. The influence of RMF South Africa is reflective of the degree to which its subject and thematic considerations have resonated beyond. In a diversifying British student body, international students from former colonized territories have facilitated bringing issues of colonial injustice and legacies to the fore. They have received considerable support from the political left on their campuses. In the US, a former colony itself, the discourse of colonial legacies have been appropriated by activists protesting similar forms of injustices such as slavery, which is more unique to the North American historical experience.

The Asian Absence: A First World Problem?

There is little to suggest from the preliminary survey that movements relating to historical and racial injustices have caught on in Asia. Generally speaking, the prominent movements on Asian campuses are more concerned with limiting government overreach and asserting civil liberties. This was certainly the case in Hong Kong and India. In the former, students protested as part of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, demanding free and fair elections in Hong Kong. In 2016, students form Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) protested against what they conceived was a state-driven affront of their civil liberties, after a student leader was charged with sedition for his activism against Indian activity in Kashmir. In Singapore, protests on campuses are illegal.

Report prepared by Winston Toh Ghee Wei, Columbia University