Shelbourne statues row a missed chance to debate decolonisation of public heritage

Orientalist school of art, of which the statues are an example, was key to project of imperialism

“A key problem in the Shelbourne controversy was the insistence on the part of the hotel, the conservationists, and much of the media on seeing the statues through the prism of recent American debates on public heritage, rather than grappling with the specificities of the Irish case and of the statues themselves.” File photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

“A key problem in the Shelbourne controversy was the insistence on the part of the hotel, the conservationists, and much of the media on seeing the statues through the prism of recent American debates on public heritage, rather than grappling with the specificities of the Irish case and of the statues themselves.” File photograph: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

 

If we have learned one thing from the heated debate sparked by the removal of the statues outside Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel, it is that the Irish public are intensely engaged with their heritage. It is unfortunate, then, that they were so ill-served by the poor quality of much of the discourse that the controversy generated.

Ireland, as a former colony itself, has a unique opportunity to engage in the kind of mature and nuanced debate around the decolonisation of public heritage that has proved impossible in an American or many other European contexts. If we can conduct an open and informed discussion around this question, we can forge a new approach to heritage management that reflects the complexity of our history and the diversity of our society.

A key problem in the Shelbourne controversy was the insistence on the part of the hotel, the conservationists, and much of the media on seeing the statues through the prism of recent American debates on public heritage, rather than grappling with the specificities of the Irish case and of the statues themselves.

For obvious historical reasons, the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade and its contemporary legacies have dominated discussions in America. In Europe, the legacies of slavery must be considered alongside the history of colonial exploitation that generated much of the wealth that built public heritage across the Continent and that shaped the racism that endures in European societies. If any society in Europe should be aware of this, it is Ireland.

The decision by the hotel, a corporate institution whose motives seem to have been more commercial than moral, to frame the statues as “slaves” stymied the debate from the outset. The issue became not whether there was a broader case for the removal of the statues, but rather whether they really represented slaves and whether, in any case, it was right to equate Nubian slavery with the transatlantic slave trade. The correct identification of the statues and the distinction between ancient slavery practices and the unparalleled racist enterprise that was chattel slavery were important clarifications to facilitate an informed debate. It was thus disappointing that they were seized upon to suggest any criticism of the statues was grounded in ignorance and not worthy of consideration. Ironically, those who denounced so-called “cancel culture” refused to engage with scholars and activists who critiqued the statues without endorsing the hotel’s approach.

Empty statue plinths outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin: “The decision by the hotel, a corporate institution whose motives seem to have been more commercial than moral, to frame the statues as ‘slaves’ stymied the debate from the outset.” File photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Empty statue plinths outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin: “The decision by the hotel, a corporate institution whose motives seem to have been more commercial than moral, to frame the statues as ‘slaves’ stymied the debate from the outset.” File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

As a colonial historian, I was particularly frustrated by efforts to present the “Egypt mania” from which these statues emerged as a simple fashion craze, unconnected to the broader process of colonial expansion and the racism that underpinned it. The Orientalist school of art, of which these statues are a relatively unsophisticated example, was a key component of the cultural project of imperialism. We in Ireland are particularly familiar with the role which deeply racist portrayals of human beings as monkeys played in legitimising colonial rule. The type of Orientalist fetishisation of African women’s bodies seen in these statues is the other side of the coin of this cultural imperialism. Some, including myself, believe this means such statues should not occupy such a prominent place in our public space. Many others disagree. The point here is that there are legitimate grounds for a debate.

Shifting meaning of art

Furthermore, the focus on the original intent of the statue wilfully ignores the way in which the meaning of art shifts over time. The artist and those who commissioned the statues may not have sought to belittle or fetishise African women. It is highly likely they never even imagined that Dublin would one day become home to a community of women of colour. However, our society has changed and we saw some prominent black women express their discomfort with the statues last week. Other women of colour may not share this concern. Their voices should count in this debate too.

Another common refrain was that if the statues were removed on the grounds of their exoticisation of African bodies, then half of Paris and London would also have come down too. This ignores the specificity of the Irish experience in a context where Oriental art is far less ubiquitous and national identity is grounded much more in the rejection of Empire than in its celebration. Why can’t Ireland follow a course more closely aligned to that of its former fellow colonies? Why must we always look to Britain, Europe, and America? The African and Asian activists who have been writing about and implementing the decolonisation of public heritage for years often draw on Irish history and literature for inspiration. Maybe it is time we start to lend as much weight to them as we do to the social media warriors of Trump’s America and Brexit Britain.

Finally, the debate was marked by a distinct lack of perspective. It seems as though far more ink was spilled on the fate of these statues of African women outside a five star hotel in Dublin than on the experiences of the men and women effectively incarcerated in terrible conditions in hotels across the country serving as direct provision centres. All of us, including myself, should reflect on this disparity.

Irish public heritage

I still believe that we have not squandered the opportunity to have a reasoned and measured debate about the decolonisation of Irish public heritage. As Ireland becomes an increasingly diverse and vibrant society, we cannot simply ignore the fact that our museum collections are home to hundreds of objects plundered from Africa and Asia in the era of colonialism, that the architectural jewels of our cities and our great country houses were, in some cases, built with the proceeds of the slave trade and colonial exploitation and that our streets and statues almost solely honour men from the late 19th/early 20th century, some of whom have very dark connections to Empire.

It should not be left to private enterprises or to self-appointed gatekeepers to decide if and how we should reimagine our public heritage to better represent our complicated past and our multicultural present. Let’s have a public conversation about it and let’s do it better than we have done over the last week.

Dr Dónal Hassett is a lecturer in French at University College Cork

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