Editing the Past

David Capener is a writer based in Belfast, an Editorial contributor at Archinet and a reporter for World Architecure Community. He blogs at www.futurecrowds.com

All history is biography. It is the story we tell ourselves to make sense of the world; our place in it, and, those we share it with. Stories shape our world and the storyteller shapes the story. One of the ways our stories find expression is through the manifestation of symbols — flags, images, colours, statues. By pledging allegiance to a certain flag, adopting a particular colour or memorialising a hero in the form of a statue we embed ourselves in a story.

We only truly understand the power of the stories we live in when they collide with other stories; sparks fly, and the world that gave us sense and meaning is challenged. From minor disagreements with friends in a pub, to a senseless act of violence perpetrated by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, driving his car at speed into a crowd of peaceful protesters; the power of stories runs deep — we are narrative creatures.

By now we are familiar with the story —the removal of a potent symbol; a confederate statue in Charlottesville. A lone confederate statue in a town square is an edited version of history. Those who edit history do so to create a narrative which works in their favour. Removing this statue from the town square is no less an act of editing history than those who put it there in the first place. The statue told a lopsided version of the past — the defeated so-called ‘hero’ fighting for the continuation of slavery in the southern states. Perhaps a better solution would have been to tell the whole story. Imagine the symbolic power of a confederate statue, a black slave and a Union solider.

To forgive is not to forget but to remember. To remember is an act of imagination; to imagine a future world that learns form its past mistakes and builds on its success. To remember is to be part way along the journey to understanding the stories of those we might oppose — even though, like the neo-Nazi sympathisers in Charlottesville, we might find those stories deeply abhorrent.

As I walk with my children through the grounds of Belfast City hall, we look at the statues —I tell them a story. My storytelling requires that I provide information about the story of our nation that is not immediately apparent. Queen Victoria, opposer of the slave trade, but ignorer of the scores who died during the Irish famine. The ‘famine Queen’ takes her place in a redacted storyline. Eliza Ward, murdered saving the life of her boss in the city hall cafe, rightly has a plaque, and the Titanic memorial statue sculpted as the female personification as death, but Queen Victoria remains the only woman among men; all white; predominantly Unionist, or from a Protestant background.

According to Belfast City Council’s website the grounds around the City hall “contain a wealth of memorials to the history, people and events associated with the City.” This is true, but only in part. The city has never been predominantly male, Protestant or Unionist and between the famine years of 1845-51 the population of Ulster fell by 340,000, with harrowing accounts of emaciated families queuing at soup kitchens — the governments inadequate response to the crisis.

An Irish famine memorial alongside the statue of Queen Victoria would presumably be telling a better, more accurate version of the story of our City. Why not add a statue of one of the first women elected to the Northern Irish parliament, Julia McMordie, next to the statue of her husband MP RJ McMordie? What about non Unionists? Activists? Peacemakers? Or, perhaps an empty plinth like the one in Trafalgar Square which can host different statues reflecting the diversity, not just of our past, but of our present.

We edit the past to the detriment of the generations who will follow us. The ability to tell the stories of our pasts (intentionally plural), however difficult, can help us navigate the complexities of the present. This is not an easy path to navigate, but a path that gives us no choice except to journey along it. How we decide to make that journey matters.

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