Public monuments seem to have become the lightning rod of our cultural wars: from Robert E Lee, to Cecil Rhodes, to intimations that Nelson might fall, the past few years constitute a high-water mark for the contestation of collective memory. How do we commemorate the past when the past keeps on changing?
For some this is a bit baffling − the past is the past, why tear down its artefacts? Even those we find abhorrent can stand as a lesson learnt. For others, prevarication seems at best nonsensical, at worst, a living insult. Russia and adjoining countries made a clean break of it post-1990 (sometimes even earlier, Prague’s Stalin monument was destroyed in 1962) and tore down the symbols of a failed and cruel political experiment. Why can’t others do the same?
This debate highlights how difficult it is to agree on the status of a collective memory and a shared definition of national identity.