Public statues should be kept to remind us about our history - professor

By Jessica Tyson

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley says public statues and monuments should be kept so people can be reminded about the good and bad events of New Zealand history.

The Massey University professor's comments come after the bronze statue of a 19th-century British captain who the city of Hamilton was named after, John Hamilton, was removed from its plinth last week by Hamilton City Council contractors following a request by Waikato-Tainui.

On the day, Tame Iti wrote on Twitter that racist colonial statues and monuments should be kept in one place as an exhibition on racism, rather than destroying them outright.

In the post, Iti wrote, “Don't destroy the statues!! Put them in a place altogether where people can talk about them... like a racist museum ... having them all together in one space as racists and no longer as upstanding citizens is way more useful than having them at the bottom of a river.”

Spoonley says, “I’m with Iti on this one. I think that they remind us of our history, good and bad.”

Spoonley says statues, by definition, are to commemorate and to celebrate.

“So we need to think about that celebration element to it and begin to out those people and what they did into a context which we can explain to young people in particular their good and their bad.”

Hamilton statue toppled on iwi request / Te Ao

In the wake of mass protests over the death of George Floyd, cities across the globe are taking another look at the public statues and monuments some say are a legacy of white supremacy.

“I think it’s an excellent thing. I think some of the things, when you look at what these protests are doing, they’re using technologies. I think they’ve changed what’s happening. When we saw the George Floyd video, that nine minutes, you can’t help but be moved by that.”

Spoonley says the Black Lives Matter movement has opened up a space for New Zealanders to also have a debate.

“I noticed at the Black Lives Matter protest in Auckland on Sunday - what struck me was the young people. This is a moment when the young have come into their own, a bit like the environmental debate in which they are setting the agenda and I think that’s fantastic.”

Should Captain Cook statue be replaced with significant tangata whenua? / Te Ao

In New Zealand, controversy also surrounds the Captain James Cook statue in Gisborne. Cook and his crew arrived onshore in 1769 and, after an altercation with local Māori, shot and killed nine people including a chief.

Māori Party Co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer has called for an inquiry to identify and remove racist monuments, statues and names from the colonial era.

Spoonley says he does not oppose the inquiry but wonders whether it is a priority.

“We’re in a moment, which I have been terming a second wave or civil rights protest. I think that’s simply about not only the way in which police address and deal with, in this case, in our country tangata whenua but others. It speaks to a broader set of issues around inequality.”