A UNSW researcher in international heritage law has weighed into the monument-removal controversy, suggesting that monuments of James Cook and confederate statues in the US not be removed.
The statues were the centre of debate in Australia and the US in August last year, after a deadly rally in Charlottesville, Virginia erupted around the city’s plans to take down a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
Shortly after a statue of Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park was spray-painted with the words “change the date” and “no pride in genocide” and a monument to the fifth governor of NSW, Lachlan Macquarie, and a statue of Queen Victoria was also targeted.
Associate Professor Lucas Lixinski said the confederate monuments should remain but should also “add plaques that tell a different arc or more nuanced history of what happened."
“The advantages are that you don’t erase history… and you accommodate the sentiment of multiple sides of the population as opposed to yielding to the feelings of one segment of the population, however adversely affected,” he said.
“They still get to have their story told, but told in a more proactive way as opposed to having just been told by the act of removal.” He said the same stance could be applied to any offending monuments in Australia.
“Much like confederate general monuments in the US, James Cook statues in Australia cause offence to a minority group in Australia, Indigenous Australians, by saying that Australian history started with the arrival of James Cook and that he should be praised and celebrated,” he said.
“In doing so, we ignore the centuries of oppression and mistreatment of Indigenous people that were brought by the arrival of James Cook.”
“The suggestion would be not to remove the monuments and instead just have a plaque that says, for instance, ‘This is James Cook, the first British individual to arrive in Australia. His arrival began the process of colonisation and it has disrupted the ways of life of Indigenous peoples’.”
The vandalised Confederate monument on the Denty County Courthouse Square. Photo: Supplied
The Associate Professor considered three frameworks – International Cultural Heritage Law, International Human Rights Law and Transitional Justice – in his consideration of the future of the 1500 confederate monuments in the US in the Wisconsin International Law Journal in June.
“Most cultural heritage law and human rights law are very yes or no, it’s an all or nothing response, so it doesn’t leave a lot of room for compromising, and inevitably they end up recasting the same conflict as opposed to doing something that actually allows the conversation to flow in equal terms,” he said.
“So I discarded them on those grounds and moved onto transitional justice, which is a framework that has been used across a range of countries to think about how to engage with a difficult past and heal the society and move on.”
The Associate Professor said it was wrong to leave the statues as they were or remove the statues.
“What’s wrong with removing them is that they still speak to history, so to erase history is almost to forget about the lessons that history can tell us about the past, so we don’t make the same mistakes in the future,” he said.
“So erasing that history is just as bad as leaving it as is, in my opinion.”
Associate Professor Lucas Lixinski’s book Legalized Identities: Cultural Heritage Law and the Shaping of Transitional Justice is under contract for publication with Cambridge University Press.