What to do with monuments!

Jun 22, 2020

New statues commemorating heroes like Pemulwuy and other great leaders of the indigenous resistance must be accorded pride of place in a reconciled nation.

Many years ago, during a visit to Budapest I was taken by an enthusiastic Hungarian guide to view what was known as the Square of Heroes.

This plaza was, and probably still is, ringed by larger than life size statues of former warrior leaders who had slaughtered their way to power – mass murderers to a man. Not my kind of people.

But for the locals, they were selfless patriots, liberators of their lands. Any suggestion that the monuments should be removed, far less destroyed, was unthinkable. They were, after all heroes. End of story.

But outside town there was a more intriguing show place – the Memorial Park. There, after the Russian hegemons had been expelled in 1989, the triumphal monuments had been removed from public places, but instead of hurling them into the Danube, they had been collected in a large paddock as a kind of theme park.

There, under the constant strains of martial music, they could be inspected in all their pompous absurdity, failed triumphalism that had outlived its use by date. Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.

And there was a souvenir shop to remember them by; I purchased a small empty tin labeled “the last breath of communism” and T shirt emblazoned with the words: “So Marx is dead and Lenin is dead. and I’m not feeling too well either.” And I thought what a good idea: don’t destroy, rather satirise, laugh at the follies of history so that they can be exposed and rejected in future.

I am not suggesting a similar project in Australia; our culture wars have never reached the same intensity, for which we may be truly grateful. But rather than toppling and erasing our statues surely putting them in their true perspective makes more sense than the mindless vandalism which is dividing our communities at present.

The idea of extra plaques to explain the atrocities that were so much a part of our colonial past is a no brainer, and should be implemented without delay. In particular, new statues commemorating heroes like Pemulwuy and other great leaders of the indigenous resistance must be accorded pride of place in a reconciled nation.

And perhaps some names need to be expunged – there is nothing to commend the ghastly Belgian tyrant King Leopold in any context, let alone that of Australia. But our history certainly includes men like James Cook, Arthur Phillip, Lachlan Macquarie and many of the pioneers who opened up the continent to white settlement. They were not flawless, and their faults should be recorded; but so should their real achievements.

And it hardly needs saying that banning the production of books, films, television and the rest is entirely counter-productive. Sure, criticize them, refute them, rebut them; but they were the creations of their times, and unless we understand those times, we will not understand where they went mistaken and how we can do better.

Henry Ford said history was bunk – wrong. Like it or not, history is our past: it informs our present and offers us ways to shape our future. We do not need to embrace it, but we ignore it at our peril.


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