Absence and Erasure

While researching for this week’s post, one phrase kept popping up in every online debate or discussion around any controversial heritage issue; erasing history. In almost every case, the group calling for a monument, name, word, or piece of art to be removed is opposed by another group who, even if they agree that the object is offensive, claim that by doing so they would be erasing history.

I have always been torn between two camps. A part of me agrees that we cannot take down every object which offends people, that part of me advocates leaving them up and instead changing the narrative around them, pinning up information about their dark past. The other part of me knows that it is not my place to make that judgement, because I do not know how it feels to see a glorified statue of my oppressor on the street I take to work every morning.

In Holtorf’s text, “Can less be more? Heritage in the Age of terrorism”, he talks about the Western way of preserving heritage, putting it behind glass and looking at it. But heritage does not reside in physical objects and structures, I am not saying that I don’t care if historical sites get destroyed, however the level of almost holy regard for them is sometimes excessive, they must be parts of the community surrounding them and if that community no longer feels like that piece of history represents them, or if it deeply offends them, taking them down is not an act of erasing history but of evolving it and creating another point in history.

A really good case is the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Firdaus Square, downtown Baghdad on the 9th of April 2003. The footage of that moment became iconic. The performance itself became a larger part of history and heritage in collective memory than that statue could have ever been.

Holtorf also talks about powerful absence. The empty space once holding a slaveowners bust or a mansion built by wealth stolen from colonized lands is a valuable statement on where we are in history as a society.

The problem with this line of thought however, is that it’s difficult to set guidelines. If the pyramids were indeed built by slaves, should we boycott them? The idea seems absurd, but why? Is the offensiveness of something lessened the further we are in history? A reasonable way of thinking about it is that objects should be taken down if there is a living community that is still hurt by their display. But again, who is to decide whose hurt and anger is real and viable? For example, the destruction of two buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001, they believed the buddhas hurt them because they went against their religion, it would be hard to condemn them just because we don’t agree on what they believe is offensive to them.

Another aspect to consider in all this, is that monuments and art and other cultural objects are not only painful reminders to the people they oppress, they are dangerous icons that might normalize or encourage oppressive behavior. A child growing up in a town which glorifies a historical figure who was affiliated with white supremacy may believe that it is not as heinous as it is. The controversial painting, “Thérèse Dreaming” by Balthus, which shows a young prepubescent girl in a sexualized manner and still hangs at the Met today, can be a step towards normalizing the sexualization of children, at least in the minds of sick people who are already looking for an excuse; it’s depicted in high brow art, how bad can it be?

Given these consequences, would it be so terrible if these parts of our heritage were “erased”? Given that “erasing” them actually just means taking them off public display and archiving them, with history books and records keeping them from being forgotten. Do we value material heritage so much that we would put it before not just the happiness, but safety, of our living breathing communities?


Holtorf, Cornelius, ‘Can less be more? Heritage in the age of terrorism,’ Public Archaeology 5/2 (2006) 101-109.


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