Heroes or villains: can historians decide?  

Wednesday 25 July 2018

How far should history be re-written in accordance with changing values? Should we apologise for historical wrongs? These are two of the issues examined by a new book written by some of the UK’s leading historians.

Dethroning Historical Reputations: Universities, Museums and the Commemoration of Benefactors questions whether we have a right to demolish our public ‘heroes’ or should they be judged by the standards of their time. Published by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, it is an interdisciplinary collection of essays contributed by historians, sociologists and a museum director. Together they explore an emerging conflict between the past and present, history and ideology, and benefactors and their critics.

The book is brim full of unexpected highlights. For example, it reveals that between July 2017 and July 2018, search engine results for Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant slave-trader from Bristol, were up by 180 per cent. His name has been associated with ‘the Colston bun’ and ‘Colston Music Hall’ but was only recently searched alongside the term ‘Atlantic slave trade’.

Colston’s legacy has been the subject of widespread debate in his hometown. In July 2018, Bristol County Council agreed to add a plaque to his statue that points out his involvement in the enslavement of 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children). Campaigns to reject, rename and remove historic figures have brought the present into collision with the past.

In Britain the battle to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a man who launched wars of aggression, terrorised civilians, killed thousands of Africans, and stripped thousands more of their land and their rights, and one of Oxford University’s most famous benefactors, has spread to other institutions. The movement has brought into focus other public monuments and statues in towns and cities across the country dedicated to people whose views clash with modern values. And in the US, memorials to Confederate leaders in the American Civil War and to other slaveholders have also been the subject of intense disputes.

Dethroning Historical Reputations: Universities, Museums and the Commemoration of Benefactors examines these current issues from different perspectives. Should we continue to honour historic figures whose actions are now deemed ethically unacceptable? How can we reconcile the views held by our ancestors with those we now hold today? Should we even try acknowledging, in the words of the novelist L. P. Hartley, that ‘the past is another country; they do things differently there’?

In his introductory essay Professor Sir David Cannadine, president of the British Academy, says ‘The past is not a place for the squeamish, you cannot hug your way through history, and it is a mistaken idea to try.’

Ends

Notes for editors:

For further information and review copies, please contact: Lauren De’Ath, Publications and Marketing Officer, SAS Publications, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 0207 862 8753 / Lauren.de-ath@sas.ac.uk

About the editors
Jill Pellew is a historian of British public institutions. Since 2009 she has been a senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Lawrence Goldman is professor of history at the Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and a senior research fellow of St. Peter’s College, Oxford. He was editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography from 2004-2014.