The Guardian view on commemorative art: remember differently

The return of Thomas Picton, a colonial slave owner turned fallen hero of the Battle of Waterloo, to the National Museum Cardiff marks another step in the delicate dance of curating Britain’s history. Demoted to a side room, Picton’s portrait is presented in a packing case with a plank across his groin area, a nod to emasculation in its concealment of his optimised endowments.

Though not as high profile as Cecil Rhodes or Bristol’s toppled Edward Colston, Picton is a similarly divisive figure. After a six-year stint as governor of Trinidad, he was convicted of the appalling torture of a 14-year-old girl, a conviction that was later overturned on a technicality. Even the Duke of Wellington, under whose command Picton lost his life in 1815, had earlier described him as “a rough, foul-mouthed devil”. Yet two centuries after his death, he is commemorated not only on streets and pub signs in his native Wales, but also in the names of settlements as far afield as New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

In such a context, it might legitimately be seen as pointless, even counterproductive, to attempt to erase his image from a museum altogether; the preferred alternative for the time being has been to recontextualise him, as Bristol curators did when they put the battered statue of Colston on display last year. A public consultation launched simultaneously revealed that 65% of Bristolians were positive about the toppling of the statue, while 80% believed it should be displayed in a local museum. After six months, Colston was relegated to a back room, where he remains available to visitors on behind-the-scenes tours.

The work of wrangling such contentious figures into a meaningful relationship with 21st-century values is keeping curators busy. Visitors to Birmingham for the Commonwealth Games will have noticed another intervention: a statue of Queen Victoria outside the city hall has been encased in a boat by the Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke, alongside a crew of five replica queens, each bearing an oversized medal signifying an important battle in the history of the British empire. These include the invasion of Trinidad, of which Picton was the immediate beneficiary. It is important to Locke that the work is temporary, so that it becomes “this strange mirage, this dreamlike memory” that people will remember long after the piece itself has gone. The presentation of Picton in a packing case, intended to convey that he too may be moved on before too long, makes a similar point.

Compare these nuanced negotiations with a history that is always on the move with the crass decision of the culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, to slap a Grade II listing on a plaque of Cecil Rhodes on the walls of an Oxford college, overruling the government’s own cultural custodian, Historic England, in so doing. Far from helping Oriel College to honour a patriotic history, Dorries has shackled it to one of that history’s most ignoble moments. Through this kneejerk response to a contemporary debate, she has created a permanent monument to political short-termism; it is the curators of temporary displays who are taking the long view.

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