Since last summer, I’ve occasionally reflected on the fall-out of the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd and calls for statues and other public memorials to be removed or recontextualised, as well as the renaming and decolonisation of our heritage sites, monuments and landscapes. The principal Archaeodeath posts on this subject include links to talks and other resources; I focus on those dimensions that touch on sites and monuments I’m familiar with and issues linked directly to my research:
- Viking slavery on display in Dublin
- Yale and Offa
- Colonialism, Historic Slavery and The National Trust: An Archaeodeath View
- Colonialism and the Anglo-Welsh Border: Giants and Offa’s Dyke at Piercefield
- Defend the memorials or topple the racists?
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the National Trust site of Dunham Massey and see where one of the more prominent peaceful removals of a statue took place last year. I refer to an early 18th-century sundial which was removed in June 2020 from outside the front of the house. Set on a moulded stone plinth, the sundial comprised of a painted lead sculpture of a kneeling black man in a feathered loin cloth representing the continent of Africa. It had been set up as one monument among others to honour the 1st Earl of Warrington by his son, the second Earl in c. 1735. Read about this story on BBC News here.
I will not debate or comment further on this decision here, other than to note that this is a Grade II listed structure, and thus has a legal status subject to protection. I will also make clear that while it is not an unambiguous direct representation of a slave and does not commemorate an individual connected with slavery and specific colonial conflicts/events specifically, it is still an integral dimension of the complex relationship between Britain’s past, colonialism and both slavery and the slave trade. Indeed, it is overtly commemorative of the aristocratic family in residence at Dunham Massey. Furthermore, it is not merely the presence/depiction of a black person which is the issue here, but the overt degrading posture and use of a black body to represent an entire land mass and its resources ripe for exploitation and deferential to subjugation. It is also part of a broader network of similar sculptures which were produced and displayed in the 18th century across England. In other words, the ornamental sculpture, but one of a series representing the continents now lost, is caught up in the contemporary complex nexus of controversial statuary subject to calls for removal and/or recontextualisation. The context of a representation of the ‘blackamoor’ in European art linking Africa and slavery is cogently outlined in the National Trust’s collections: object 93671 here where it states:
These shifting, entangled designations reflect Britain’s own fraught relationship with the Black body and the legacies of its long and lucrative involvement in the colonial slave trade.http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/936871
What I want to focus on is where things stand now with the Dunham Massey sundial one year on from the perspective of a visitor. The prominence of the sundial’s position cannot be overestimated: this wasn’t an ornament in some back corner of the gardens: it had pride of place on the very edge of the deer park in front of the main approach, right outside the grand entrance to the country house of the earls of Warrington.
And yet it still remains as a ghost: an absent presence. The sundial remains with a text explanation and promise not to ‘erase’ this ornamental feature and its uncomfortable legacy, but to display this monument in a context in which its significance and character can be fully outlined.
This liminal situation is eerie – the sundial is neither present nor fully gone. Its removal is framed around upset and distress caused to unnamed people by the form of the subject and its prominent position, not because of any issue regarding its social, political or cultural significance or its relationship to history itself. While the second sentence on the current sign explains that there is no desire to ‘censor or deny’ colonial histories, it is not explicitly made clear it is because of these colonial histories that the statue embodies such an unbroken connection to contemporary events and society. Having said that, the National Trust Collections website does make the decision explicit:
In June 2020 the sculpture was temporarily removed from public view in response to the global anti-racism movement following the death of George Floyd (1973-2020)http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/936871
Simultaneously, while the promise is to make plans regarding how to fully acknowledge the ‘appalling histories of slavery and the slave trade’, the specific story of the ornamental sundial and colonialism within the British landscape, specifically the exorbitant residences of royalty and aristocracy, isn’t referenced. However, again, the National Trust Collections website, authored by Alice Rylance-Watson, goes a long way to further explain the royal precedent of the ‘blackamoor’ sculpture following the model made for William III in 1701 for Hampton Court.
What is clear is that the absent presence of the sundial is far from an ‘erasure’ or indeed a conclusion. Neither the National Trust nor the visitor can rest easy about this limbo. The careful language on the sign are clearly because the National Trust are fearful of the mobilisation of their decisions in ongoing phoney culture wars in political discourse and the popular press. Yet by leaving the former presence of the ornament in plain sight, rather than a yawning gap, the fate of the sundial is left obscure but an ongoing focus of attention.
Mindful of the sensitivity of this topic, as are the National Trust, I will simply leave it here. This absent presence for the sundial is disturbing and unsettling and far from either censorship or solution.
My TikTok video (below) simply posed a question about what this process of redisplaying the sundial constitutes, and you can read the comments for yourself. Whatever the future destination and display looks like, the current liminal status of an absence presence for the sundial reveals our society’s ongoing struggle to confront and contend with the legacies of colonialism.