Sculpting history

The recent controversy over vandalism of statues has some interesting points.

It seems as though many people only notice public commemorative statues when these are vandalised or involved in some controversy. The vandalism, and, in some cases, more extreme actions like removal, of statues is obviously linked with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and UK. The compass needle of public opinion, which started out pointing to current actions by police against African Americans in the US, has swung around to point at instances of racism in general, and to the representation of history that public statues are part of. Some have advocated either removing statues of historical figures like Cook, or adding plaques to the statues which reflect more recent views of these figures.

Brief articles like this obviously can’t do justice to a complicated process which is still playing out. The issues involved are quite politicised. The protesters are unhappy about Cook being described, on one of his statues, as having “discovered” Australia. They correctly point out that it had already been discovered by the Aborigines, who were in occupation long before 1770. (Australia was in no way a terra nullius!) From this viewpoint, the European presence in Australia was an armed invasion. In parts of Australia, in particular country Victoria, European occupation amounted to a war of occupation.

Conservatives in particular are uncomfortable about this perspective on Australian history. Scott Morrison first denied that slavery had been practiced in Australia. His statement today kind-of retracted that, and said instead “I don’t think it’s helpful to go into an endless history wars discussion about this. It’s all recorded. I acknowledge all of that, OK?” (The Age, 20 June 2020).

(Actually, the “history wars” to which he alludes is the controversy about the precise number of Aborigines killed by white settlers. There is a helpful Wikipedia article covering the main threads of this debate — although this might get a few further edits by the time you look at it! As a conservative, Morrison would be well aware of this controversy. For him to imply that the historical record is settled is therefore disingenuous.)

So how do statues get drawn into this? The victors get to write history, and public statues are part of that narrative.  The State Library of Victoria has a fair collection of statues, mostly along on its Swanston Street frontage. The subjects:

  • a pair of metal lions;
  • statues of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) and the Princess of Wales (Alexandra of Denmark);
  • Sir Redmond Barry;
  • St George and the Dragon;
  • Joan of Arc;
  • Lieutenant-Governor La Trobe
  • two sculptures from the Dromkeen Scholastic Collection of Children’s Book Art.

This list omits a statue of the two soldiers, ‘Wipers’ and ‘The Driver’, which was installed in 1937, but relocated to the Shrine of Remembrance in 1998. There is also a couple of non-representational pieces on Swanston Street: a street sculpture, ‘Architectural fragment’, and the James Joyce Seat of Learning, installed in 1993 and 2004 respectively. My point? There are no statues of Aborigines in this list.

Public representations of Aborigines have, in the past, included pieces like the pediment of the Brisbane Town Hall. There is a good picture of this sandstone relief sculpture in the I love Brisbane blog. Aborigines are featured in this work:

The components are symbolic of the settlement of the State by the early pioneers … The figures to the left hand side represent the native life (man and beast) dying out before the approach of the white man. (I love Brisbane, accessed 20 June 2020)

Below is an image, from the same source. (The Aborigines are in between the kangaroo and the cow.)


The placement of the Aboriginal figures on the left or “sinister” side of the piece is surely not accidental. “Smoothing the pillow of the dying race” was actually still seen as a humane and enlightened thing to do. Works like this illustrate that prejudiced and cliched attitudes were widespread — enough to represent them in on a major civic building.

Modern statuary has sought to balance this portrayal of Aborigines by acknowledging historical events, and featuring works designed by Aboriginal artists. In 2016, the City of Melbourne installed a memorial to Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheenner , two Aboriginal men who participated in a guerilla war against white settlers. They were hanged in January 1842 at what is now the corner of Franklin and Bowen Streets, the site of their memorial. The latter sits lightly at that busy spot. Nearby on the RMIT city campus is a cast iron statue, Wurrungii Biik, representing Burundjil the Great Creator Spirit.

To have statues like these in our cities shows that images of our past have evolved along with our attitudes. Things that could not be acknowledged, whether from shame, guilt, or ignorance, can now be portrayed and talked about. Statues matter because they are everyone’s birthright. They become characters in the dialogue that is our history.




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