The Australian Museum is spruiking for the removal of public memorials across the nation. Statues on the museum’s website earmarked to go include those of James Cook, Lachlan Macquarie, Thomas Brisbane, John Batman, Thomas Mitchell, George Evans and Alfred Canning, as well as monuments related to the First Fleet. Curatorial staff at the Sydney institution maintain such memorials are psychologically harming our society because they broadcast “false, constructed histories” of Australia.
The museum sets out its position in a key web entry titled “Whose History: The role of statues and monuments in Australia”. Memorials to Cook and company “celebrate racist history”, it contends, and they constitute “symbols of colonisation and genocide”. Worse still, by “occupying civic space” in cities and towns such statues are “arguably colonising minds”. Thus public memorials sited around the country are instruments for mind control.
This report appears in May’s Quadrant.
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The museum is especially opposed to monuments honouring figures like Governors Macquarie and Brisbane, and Captain Cook. This is because the memorials “overlook” their “involvement in the massacres, land theft and oppression of First Nations people” (sic).
Cook is the chief target of the Australian Museum’s displeasure. I lost count of how many times he is vilified by authors on its website. Many entries include remarks deriding the man, some wanting his erasure from historical records. Cook is guilty of “the first lie”, one entry runs; another entry describes his Endeavour voyage as “an act of piracy and theft”. Hearsay, spleen and innuendo prevail, not a word appearing on his immense contribution to Enlightenment science. Besides labelling Cook a “racist”, the museum casts him as having a malign hand in nearly everything from imposing European “imperialism” upon the Pacific region through to introducing “infectious diseases” into Australia—starting, quite remarkably, with a smallpox outbreak at Sydney a decade after Cook’s death.
The Australian Museum especially wants memorials to Cook removed from public display. Fixing on the statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park, all is explained in “Tear it Down”, a controversial entry written by Dr Mariko Smith, manager of the museum’s indigenous collection. She contends that the Hyde Park effigy so oppresses Australian minds it urgently needs to be removed; although, as her entry’s title implies, this must not be undertaken using due administrative process.
Instead, Dr Smith advocates vandalism, illustrating “Tear it Down” with a vivid drawing of an imagined event. This cartoon shows the park at night, where a group of masked men have attached a cable to the statue of Captain Cook. No police are present as, unhindered, these vandals heave the bronze figure from its plinth. In phrases borrowed from Nietzsche, Dr Smith’s article extols this as a cathartic act which would mentally liberate all Australians, because by destroying Cook’s effigy in this way those involved will be “tearing down false idols and their history”.
Writing approvingly of attacks on the statue, the museum’s curator ends “Tear it Down” with photographs showing red paint splattered upon the Hyde Park memorial.
Reading this might set you wondering about management at the Australian Museum. “Tear it Down” and “Whose History” have been sitting in plain sight for over two years. In all that time, has no administrator working there, or anyone on the museum’s board, considered whether the institution’s website should be inciting people to destroy public property?
In calling for violent action against public monuments, the Australian Museum sets itself against a global trend. Alarmed at events mostly in the United States, museum professionals around the world have been united in opposing the wilful destruction of public memorials by lawless mobs. Curators contend that monument removal is a matter for civil authority, with full community consultation, democratic decision-making, and adequate cooling-off periods being essential. Besides, groups which seek to limit knowledge and research by the deliberate destruction of historical items and information are anathema to a museum’s mission.
As for urging attacks on this nation’s monuments, vandalism is a criminal offence. Might the Australian Museum be legally exposed if a memorial is damaged, and the culprit cites those web entries as an influence? The risk is not limited to public statues and external monuments, because there are historical portraits and related exhibits on show in art galleries, libraries and institutional museums around the country. Imagine if someone gets it into their head to attack an oil painting or sculpted bust of Cook, Macquarie or Brisbane displayed in a government building. What courtroom mischief a barrister might cause by introducing as evidence those entries on the Australian Museum’s webpage, spreading responsibility for the criminal damage.
And one must not overlook potential reprisals from those aggrieved at how the museum is stirring unrest, especially should the Hyde Park effigy be vandalised in a protest action. As an agent provocateur, Dr Mariko Smith can hardly play the innocent party should some distressed soul mutilate exhibits under her supervision. Remember the zealot who visited a Melbourne public gallery to attack the much-publicised crucifix-in-urine photograph it had on exhibition. By publishing “Tear it Down” and “Whose History” on the webpage, the museum’s staff have draped a target over their own collection.
For all those indignant fulminations, the Australian Museum is putting up a straw man before knocking him down again. It complains public statues around the nation do not tell viewers what these individuals did. But every schoolchild knows a statue of a public figure is a portrait. Besides their facial likeness, that person is shown in attire linked with a position they held, and bearing accoutrements symbolising their achievements. It has been this way since classical Roman art over two millennia ago. If you want a narrative giving career details, then look to very different visual works, like Trajan’s Column or the Bayeaux Tapestry.
This is why in Edinburgh three years ago a new plaque was installed beneath the main statue in St Andrews Square. That stately effigy of Henry Dundas, the first Viscount Melville, forms a decorative centrepiece in the much-loved formal park. However, among the feats of his parliamentary career, Melville delayed the abolition of slavery. Graffiti to this effect was repeatedly sprayed on the plinth in Black Lives Matter protest rallies, and the statue became the subject of much criticism. In response, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, a direct descendant of West Indian slaves, prepared a report for the city’s council which suggested Melville’s connection to slavery be acknowledged in an updated plaque. Palmer stressed that history should not be censored by removing the statue, just that the past be made known with a new plaque—which is what has occurred.
Installing an updated plaque is now the preferred response in Britain to these controversies over statues and memorials, and it is being followed by local government in other countries. This is not mentioned in “Whose History”, “Tear it Down” or elsewhere on the Australian Museum’s website. You would think, given its mission to educate and inform, the museum would leap at the opportunity to install new plaques which more fully inform the public about those historical figures, instead of just destroying monuments altogether.
Actually, “Whose History” is most selective in what information it offers. Written by Nathan Sentance, a digital program manager and librarian with the museum, it cites at length media commentary and topical journalism advocating vandalism and monument destruction. Most of these sources press the view that historical monuments are actively persuading Australians to accept antiquated colonialist ideas. None of them offer evidence to prove this.
Conspicuous by their omission from “Whose History” are comments by historians and academics specialising in historical revisionism and modern-day statue removal. Why are these experts missing? Likewise no one defending public memorials is quoted. But checking the sources listed in “Whose History” reveals that the museum selectively uses such voices. One media report it cites from 2017 even covered the then Prime Minister’s candid response to criticism of the Cook statue in Hyde Park. Malcolm Turnbull is quoted as saying:
We can’t get into this sort of Stalinist exercise of trying to white out, or obliterate, or blank out parts of our history. Trying to edit our history is wrong. All of those statues, all of those monuments, are part of our history and we should respect them and preserve them—and by all means put up other monuments, other statues and signs and sites that explain our history.
This is a leading statement on the topic, and by a prime minister no less. Like Geoffrey Palmer in Britain, he argues for adding more signs and plaques to explain history. But “Whose History” does not acknowledge this. Instead the Australian Museum’s staff brazenly leaves out Turnbull’s words, using the article he is quoted in to endorse only statue removal.
Malcolm Turnbull’s statement points to the elephant in the room: airbrushing Cook out of the nation’s story brings to mind Soviet oppression, and how Stalin’s apparatchiks falsified history to prop up the regime. George Orwell famously publicised this practice in his grim political novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Its main character, who is employed by an immense propaganda bureau called the “Ministry of Truth”, spends his working days rewriting historical records to keep them consistent with shifting government policies. The lengths his bureau goes to in falsifying the past is revealed when the regime switches international alliances:
A large part of the political literature of five years was now completely obsolete. Reports and records of all kinds, newspapers, books, pamphlets, films, sound tracks, photographs—all had to be rectified at lightning speed … The work was overwhelming, all the more so because the processes that it involved could not be called by their true names.
Orwell’s description was based on what really was taking place in the Soviet Union. History was redacted, with government documents, media files, even old press photographs being tampered with to serve political ends.
Many migrant families who have settled in Australia in the last century fled bullying, anti-democratic governments which routinely rewrote history. For them watching a statue violated by a mob of political activists—and grasping its authoritarian symbolism—is a dread part of their refugee experience. And scattered throughout our community are individuals who witnessed this taking place under the Nazis, or Fascists, or Soviets, or else in Vietnam, South America or Africa. It still is practised in China and North Korea, while journalists report history is currently being doctored in Putin’s Russia, the government there misleading the public in order to justify the war in the Ukraine.
For all their amateur psychologising, the museum staff who wrote “Tear it Down” and “Whose History” nowhere consider what message on political freedom would be broadcast to past, present and future refugees if statues are violated across Australia. It also smacks of hypocrisy to claim our history needs to be sanitised, and assorted individuals obliterated from the national record, to help end supposedly “repressive colonialism”. Doing this would itself constitute political repression, as Malcolm Turnbull warned when he was Prime Minister.
The Australian Museum’s call for public statues to be destroyed and our nation’s history sanitised is the more remarkable given the alarm expressed internationally by museum professionals over how the short-lived Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) tried to obliterate everything contrary to its view of history. Beginning in 2015, the first targets for ISIS were mosques, shrines and tombs significant to the Sunni, as well as centuries-old churches and Christian monasteries. Scores of historic religious buildings were dynamited without compunction.
Then ISIS set to erasing cultural heritage materials pre-dating Islam. In the museum at Mosul—which held the second-richest archaeological collection in Persia—the entire library comprising tens of thousands of books and manuscripts went up in flames, while its collection of statues, sculpture, cuneiform tablets, ceramics and ivories was smashed to rubble. Next came the region’s archaeological sites, beginning with Nimrud-Kahlu, an Assyrian city much referred to as a “Cradle of Civilisation”. Militant forces bulldozed it off the face of the earth. Even the immense ziggurat was levelled. After that, ISIS moved on to destroying Palmyra. So, by late 2015, ISIS had wiped from its territories nearly all physical trace of pre-Islamic cultures.
The caliphate’s leaders had their campaign of destruction filmed then posted online. One video shows a bulldozer breaking up the eighth-century BC Assyrian sculpted lion gateway from Raqqa; in another a tenth-century BC Lamassu statue flanking the Nergal Gate at Hatra is smashed with a jackhammer; another still shows the demolition of the ancient city wall from Nineveh, including the Adad and Maskah gates.
Firing guns into the sky, soldiers in the videos excitedly shout they have changed history. And they sincerely seem to believe that the passage of time really has been “corrected” and made to take another course—as it is nowadays called, “cancelling”. It is as if in obliterating evidence of events contrary to their beliefs, that version of the past now had never occurred. Strikingly, that same naive attitude is echoed in many pieces on the Australian Museum’s website vilifying James Cook, and demanding his erasure from narrative histories—as if this will pluck the navigator-scientist out of time altogether.
Tearing down statues and burning books are, of course, strong indicators of poor education. You find such practices in communities with overall low rates of education, and where learning and open intellectual inquiry are not valued. These are communities which fear ideas that run against what a dominant caste believes, the moral order it subscribes to. Often community members will have been indoctrinated into accepting and maintaining these beliefs (either religious beliefs or political beliefs), a dominant caste contending they are immutable truths. Tearing down statues, burning books and cancelling history are inconsistent with open societies, with free speech, with intellectual freedom.
What is most disturbing about those two articles on the Australian Museum’s webpage—“Tear it Down” and “Whose History”—is that they are contrary to the role of a public museum in a society which values free speech and the pursuit of knowledge. When I studied curatorship at university it was impressed upon us that so far as debates taking place in society are concerned a museum and its expert staff contribute by educating and supplying factual information. This is because the public looks to its museums to deliver a balanced and impartial view. It is something citizens in democratic countries take for granted, how public institutions contribute to and help maintain their free and open societies.
There is an ethical imperative involved here. The public museum, like the library and the university, acts as a guardian of truth across those disciplines it covers. It never alters, redacts or “sexes up” information to support either side of an argument. Expert information supplied by a museum and its professional staff is always to be unprejudiced, accurate and true.
“Tear it Down” and “Whose History” flout this moral principle. Instead of impartially informing the public on a debate, they pick a side and join right in. They then deliberately mislead the reader by using information selectively, even leaving out comments by a prime minister because they didn’t help the line it was supporting. Much as in a Soviet-style museum, what ought to be unbiased expert information has been corrupted to support a political line. “Tear it Down” and “Whose History” are prejudiced, inaccurate and at points untrue, and sitting there on the museum’s website for all to see. Even false psychology is introduced to the mix, statues of historical figures dotted around the nation being portrayed as the evil instruments of mass mind control.
The question chiefly raised by the Australian Museum’s condemnation of our public statues and historical memorials is whether it will stay as words on the website. A present the slant it takes on national memorials has not been integrated into the museum’s programs. James Cook has not been “cancelled” in the place, despite the heavy-handed character assassination conducted on its webpage. But might we eventually see this prominent institution actively redacting social issues and major public figures if they do not fall in with a preferred political view on how Australian society is to be grimly portrayed? We can only wait and watch.
Christopher Heathcote is the author of The Compassion of Captain Cook, a ground-breaking historical examination of James Cook’s interactions with Pacific peoples, recently published by Connor Court.