A Canadian university professor took it upon himself to set the record straight regarding museums and monuments. Matthew Sears, a professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of New Brunswick, took to Twitter yesterday to school the general public on the difference between monuments and museums. Sears' tweets came in response to a debate going on in Canada regarding the removal of a monument of Canada's first prime minister, John A. MacDonald.
According to the Globe and Mail, the statue serves as a distasteful reminder of MacDonald's hatred of Indigenous Canadians, as well as his implementation of the residential school system, which took Indigenous children from their parents and put them in a boarding school geared toward assimilating them into white Canadian culture.
Sears joined the debate after columnist Andrew Lawton tweeted his opinion that he would "rather eradicate political correctness than history."
City Hall in Victoria, British Columbia is removing its statue of Canada's first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, so aboriginals "do not need to walk past this painful reminder of colonial violence." I'd rather eradicate political correctness than history.— Andrew Lawton (@AndrewLawton) August 8, 2018
Professor Sears offered a more thoughtful way of looking at the monument debate.
Monuments =/= museums. In fact, their respective missions are often diametrically opposed. Far from preserving history, monuments are often the worst culprits in propagating a distorted and ideological version of "history" that does more to erase history than anything else.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
Even Thucydides realized this, when he said that future visitors to Athens would, b/c of its monuments, think Athens was far more powerful than it was, and would think the opposite in the case of Sparta. Modern visitors to Athens certainly think it was *better* than it was.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
Looking at the Parthenon Frieze, one would think that the Athenian citizenry and the backbone of its military power were based on cavalry - that is, the wealthy elite. But the Parthenon was built by the revenues brought in by the navy, crewed by the lowest classes of citizens.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
And as scholars have increasingly shown, slaves and non-citizens played a *far larger* role in warfare than is preserved in monuments (both physical and literary). More than that, existing monuments deliberately erase non-citizens from history.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
Far from "preserving" history or even teaching about history, monuments are a deliberate move to manufacture history, or at least distort it to fit a particular, and frequently ahistorical, narrative.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
So, in Canada today, far from "eradicating history", removing *monuments* to Macdonald or Cornwallis (who themselves certainly tried to erase Indigenous histories!) reflects a deeper understanding of and engagement with history than leaving them in place, with no comment, does.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
By all means, teach about Macdonald and Cornwallis in museums. But don't do so in a *monumentalizing* way. Instead, do what museums are supposed to do: force visitors and readers to think critically about the past and how it continues to inform the present.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
A related case, which spurred my interest in the monument/museum dichotomy, was a controversy over a display in the Canadian War Museum. My take is that the museum did the wrong thing by caving to veterans groups who wanted the museum to be a monument. https://t.co/lwlt7Y32Pz— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
In conclusion, those opposed to the removal and even the reconsideration of monuments are the ones - like the veterans groups in the above article - who are erasing history. Let's stop making the monuments = museums category mistake.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
As an addendum, let me say that museums too are subject to manipulation, distortion, and white-washing, against which we must be vigilant. The best museum curators acknowledge this and work to correct it and change displays and approaches when and where necessary.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
Thus, the monument/museum dichotomy isn't as neat and tidy as my thread might suggest, but even at the most basic level, these two things have different *purposes*, and *both* things should be subject to continual reflection and engagement.— Matthew A. Sears (@matthewasears) August 9, 2018
Not everyone agreed, however, that monuments are the culprit.
Yet museums don’t always give the mot accurate reflection - they often simplify it. And you can learn a lot about intention and motivation through monuments? Just because it’s not accurate doesnt mean it’s not useful...— ℓydiα (@lidz_xo) August 9, 2018
I see monuments as history in the sense that a civilization decided to create this, so what does it say about them, their motivations, capabilities, culture etc. Even w Athens you can present a contrast. By removing monuments, we may lose that sort of thinking. Plus its tangible!— Rocksteady (@ShardGooner) August 9, 2018
I agree they don’t equate, but that’s not a reason to demonize all monuments. They’re meant to provoke emotion & serve as a remembrance, not history lesson. Memorials to those lost in wars, genocide, and terrorist attacks are often cathartic and, as implied, help us not to forget— Courtney Solomon (@peccaviology) August 9, 2018
But most people applauded the professor's thorough explanation.
Excellent commentary ..... your work should help us all gain perspective.— Hope (@Grace32Jane) August 9, 2018
Never thought about it like that - starting the day smarter than yesterday!— Ives (@Ivgraced) August 9, 2018
Extremely well written argument here - includes sound logic, facts and reasoning ... looking for more thought provoking nuggets of knowledge from the Professor 👨🏫— Tennis Mum (@tnsmum420) August 9, 2018
Thank you for sharing. I had not considered this before and you helped provide a better perspective on this issue.— Scott North (@scottfnorth) August 9, 2018
Great thread. The greatest example of why monuments shouldn't be considered history is when the ancient Egyptians would often build monuments with inscriptions that made up military victories.— Forrest (@ForrestCoyne) August 9, 2018
Yep. Explain their political/social influence on power structure and juxtapose the reality of that influence. Confederate monuments should be in a museum about racism from the time the very first European boot touched US soil to the present.— Nancy a tavsendassa 🏳️🌈 (@RillitoRigata) August 9, 2018
Well done, professor!