The events of the last year have been dramatic and traumatic for the heritage sector as for many other parts of the UK’s public life, and certainly not least the accelerated discussions of Britain’s colonial legacy and slaving past. I write this in the wake of a recent news story reporting that an audit by the Welsh government has revealed over 200 public monuments and naming tributes to the slave trade in Wales. At this time, the report has not been made available in full.
While not my precise field of expertise, in the summer I reflected via video and blog-post regarding the Black Lives Matter movement’s UK manifestations in the wake of the toppling of the statue of Bristolian slaver Edward Colston. Looking to the Wrexham area, I took the example of the places and monuments associated with the ‘great American Welshman’ Elihu Yale, including his tomb in a prominent position outside the tower of St Giles’ church in Wrexham. Here’s the link to the YouTube video. This extends an earlier discussion of Elihu/Eliugh Yale’s tomb.
In case there is any doubt, my stance is that we should neither insist that existing monuments stay in place, nor deploy the rhetoric that all objectionable monuments and public statuary must be removed. There are a host of options for recontextualising, translating and decommissioning such tributes and material traces. Rather than erasing history, this is about contesting and engagement with the past instead of valorising it. Hence, as someone researching monuments and social memory, I see this is an opportunity on multiple levels to rethink the relationship between public names and monuments and a range of registers of pastness in our contemporary landscape they negotiate connected to slavery and colonialism. The broad, complex and troubling past of these islands and their global connections cannot be ignored. Rather than a ‘culture war’, this is a real moment for critique and change, and there is a pressing need to tackle the legacies of colonialism and slavery within academia and beyond. Hence, when I saw the National Trust’s interim endeavours to explore colonialism and slavery in relation to their properties widely dismissed by sections of the media, I decided to write again in support of the authors’ and their report.
What I hadn’t expected was my summer blog-post to attract attention and led to my invitation by the Director of the Historic Towns and Villages Forum to join a two-part webinar exploring Whose Heritage is it Anyway? Managing Changing Historical Interpretations. I attended and presented my talk on 5 November 2020 but I also had the privilege of listening to the range of talks by historians and public figures that day and during the second webinar on the same theme the following week. I’m very grateful for the opportunity and it is but one example of how it is a responsibility for heritage professionals and academics to participate in these difficult conversations.
In my talk, I used the Yale case study I’d previously explore. Yet, I also connected it to the broader backcloth of successive colonialisms that have left their traces in the borderland landscapes of Wales and England. This brought in my recent work on Offa and Offa’s Dyke in modern naming practices and the landscape.
For while seemingly poles apart, early medieval and modern, the stories of Yale and Offa are interconnected and both constitute elements of the colonial countryside. Hence, rather than looking at particular historical personages and their statues, there is a far more messy and complex job to do in exploring the decolonisation of our shared heritage. Offa’s Dyke and Yale’s tomb are both part of the same colonial story. And while I’ve made the argument that the Anglo-Saxon past can be deployed in positive and inclusive ways, my ongoing research has explored its many potential deployments in ethno-nationalist and white supremacist discourse, including within academia, built upon its inextricable associations with the colonial past and racist present. This has ramifications for what, where and how the early medieval past is interpreted in our present day landscapes. We must also face opportunities to explore thematic connections between the early medieval and modern landscapes, and the National Trust is but one of the institutions well-placed to take this forward.
One of my key motives in starting an Archaeodeath YouTube channel was to provide a repository for my online digital presentations. So, to watch my talk, follow THIS LINK.