In the early hours of July 7, 2014, the phrases “4Innocent Muslims”, “Blair Lied Thousands Died” and “J7 Truth” were sprayed on the Hyde Park memorial to the 2005 London bombings. The defacing of the memorial, timed to coincide with a commemoration of the 9th anniversary of the bombings, drew widespread condemnation across the British media and political parties.
What is it about this act that is so shocking? Europe is awash with monuments marking tragic events, both recent and distant. Barely a week goes by without another site being commissioned or opening. This is a “memory boom” in which the diverse and changing communities out of which the EU is forged seek to publicly mark their own particular pasts and historical claims.
Monuments tend to attract criticism, from simple graffiti through to organized protest. Some of this can be highly creative. The statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square in London has been routinely targeted during public protest. British students recently protesting against university fees urinated on the statue, despite the electrical current that is passed through it, supposedly to deter pigeons.
Politics vs. Tragedy
This is admittedly a different kind of monument from the Hyde Park site. The act of protesting a symbol of power and official history is not the same as that of defacing a memorial to the tragic loss of life. Statues commemorating former leaders are part of the political fabric of the state. As such, they are tied to contemporary debate on the past and future of the nation in which they are built. This makes them “fair game” for protest. But memorials that seek to keep loss within the living memory of a community ought to be outside of national politics. The state needs to be kept at arms length from the ongoing work of commemoration around the memorial.
In practice, this separation of the “memory work” of a community from the politics of national history is difficult and sometimes undesirable. In his recent book, The Labour of Memory, Matthew Allen tells of how the Hyde Park memorial came into being and the difficult debates around what form it should take and who it should be for. In the end, it was the voices of the relatives of the victims that came to the fore. The memorial’s location in Hyde Park placed it away from the symbolic political center of London, whilst its design reflected individual loss of life rather than the political significance of the bombings. Despite this, it proved impossible to keep national politics out of the memorial altogether. The site was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. It was probably this conflation of personal memory with national history that attracted protestors to the site some years later.
There are arguably worse things that can happen to a memorial site than graffiti. Perhaps the worst of all would be for a memorial to become forgotten, for its significance to be lost to future generations. Across the length of the UK, there are thousands of monuments to the “Great War” of 1914-1918. Many sites no longer hold great meaning for the contemporary communities around them. The historian Jay Winter once asked his students to recall what could be seen at a particular crossroads in Cambridge. None of them were able to recollect the war memorial placed there, despite having passed by it on innumerable occasions. The lesson here is that simply rendering the past into stone or metal does not make it durable. Only communities for whom that past has some meaning can do that work.
Remembering is a living activity that reconstructs the past to make sense of the present, and our possible collective futures. One of the outcomes of the current “memory boom” is that the desire to mark and label civic space, to ensure that nothing and no-one is forgotten, risks turning cities and towns into vast open air museums. But once they become familiar, signs and symbols cease to demand that we think much about them. It would be better to find ways of making the pasts that we wish to commemorate into ongoing problems rather than completed narratives.
Overlooking Prague, there is a fine vantage point in Letna Park where a monument to Stalin previously stood. Only the gigantic plinth remains, the statue is long gone, despite ongoing debates as to what ought to replace it (Stalin’s place was though briefly occupied by a statue of the pop star Michael Jackson). The space is now informally taken over by roller hockey players. Perhaps it is in these empty spaces marked by the past, like missing teeth in a smile, but currently not yet determined and ceded to the future, that we might best be able to reflect on who and what we are now.