Monumental Matters: how National Monuments can better reflect society


In recent years, cultural heritage professionals, researchers and members of society have been questioning the ways monuments represent and transmit particular histories.

Research such as that presented in the recent report Unstable Pedestals - Controversial monuments in public spaces in the Netherlands, initiatives such as Beyond Granite: Pulling Together in the United States, and actions such as the pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol, UK, reflect the urgency of this topic both in the Netherlands and other parts of the world.

A pedestal with cardboard signs in front and people and a building in the background
Image: ©Wikimedia Commons / Caitlin Hobbs, CC BY 3.0
The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. The ground is covered with Black Lives Matter placards

In the context of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, statues commemorating particular historic figures and events in particular emerged as contested symbols demanding attention and reflection. However, the selection, designation and preservation systems managing national heritage (including monuments) remain largely overlooked within institutionalised heritage organisations.

This is also the case of the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands (RCE). That’s why the RCE began a research project in 2023 on multivocality in relation to the National Monuments List (in Dutch, Rijksmonumentenbestand).

Multivocality and the National Monument List

The Dutch List includes mainly built heritage but also monuments such as statues and memorials, as well as archaeological sites. Unless stated otherwise, in this article we use the overarching term “monuments” to refer therefore to built heritage such as historic houses and built infrastructure as well as statues or memorials that commemorate people and events. By National Monuments we refer to those monuments that are officially and legally recognised, protected and recorded as of national significance.

The goal of the project started in 2023 is to gain insights into ways the Dutch National Monuments List can become more representative of today’s society and what this might mean for designation, interpretation and presentation processes and choices. The project is currently in its final phase (more about it will be published soon) and it has shown that the monuments that are currently on the List have in the past been selected mainly by professionals on the basis of art and architectural history criteria. Yet the items on the List relate to different histories, including those that have for long been forgotten or ignored within dominant history and heritage discourses. This has resulted in the information recorded and presented relating to monuments that are on the list being sometimes incomplete or one-faceted.

Think for example of historic houses where owners or investors of plantations – where enslaved people were forced to work – lived during the colonial period, such as the historic building on the Keizersgracht 672 in Amsterdam, which currently houses the Museum van Loon. This is a Rijksmonument or National Monument since 1970 as seen on the registry of the RCE (a legal tool that lists the National Monuments). The information on this registry – which includes the architectural features of the building to indicate what is protected – significantly contrasts with the information on the museum’s website and on the Mapping Slavery database, that present the histories that this building is connected to.

A garden with a building in the background
Image: ©Wikimedia Commons / Jean-Christophe Benoist, CC BY-SA 3.0
The garden of the Museum van Loon, Amsterdam

The question of the project is then: how can the List become more inclusive and representative of society today, in terms of what it includes, the systems that lead to designations, as well as the knowledge and stories that the monuments (re)present? A first important step is to better understand how the List developed through time and for that reason, the RCE initiated a research project to delve deeper into this history. Furthermore, the ongoing designation programme for the Post-1965 period is currently exploring how the selection and valuation process can become more participatory and multivocal, involving also members of society alongside cultural heritage professionals.;

Monumental Matters series

The research project that started in 2023 also involved looking at how other countries and organisations deal with this issue (see this blog post by Masja Bentzen Wischmann). Following Masja's research, in November 2023 the RCE and the ErfgoedAcademie collaboratively organised a two-part online international exchange on multivocality in relation to designated monuments and built heritage titled Monumental Matters.

Two important questions guided the sessions: How do our (choices of) National Monuments reflect society? How can we accommodate multiple voices and histories within National Monument lists? These questions were tackled by international experts in a series of presentations, offering inspiration for discussions between approximately 90 participants in attendance from more than 10 countries.

Session 1: National Monument designations and lists

The first session focused on the construct of a National List of designated monuments, thinking about how multivocality can be implemented in this context. The legislature and processes surrounding how monuments are designated and managed differs in different countries. This session raised questions such as: Who is involved in decision making processes? How can research be made more accessible or participatory? How can governing bodies / heritage institutions be more transparent about National Monument lists, knowledge surrounding monuments, as well as the limitations in how these are managed?

Em. Professor at the Erasmus University Rotterdam Maria Grever began the first session with a presentation of the key insights from the KNAW-report "Unstable Pedestals" (2023), highlighting the importance of dialogue and participation around (existing and future) monuments in the public space (mainly statues and memorials) and providing advice to official bodies on how to involve multiple stakeholders in the decision-making process. Grever argued that the process of memorialisation - that is, the process of setting memories, historical moments or figures in stone - is always a political and selective process, often rooted in unbalanced power structures whereby some groups in society are (over-)represented and some are made invisible in official narratives about the past. Hence the need to involve as many stakeholders and different societal groups as possible.

A statue on a pedestal on a square with buildings in the background
Image: G.J. Dukker, RCE, Documentnummer 321.623
Statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in Hoorn, the Netherlands. This statue is one of the case studies used in the KNAW report.

Next, Katrijn D’hamers from FARO Flanders presented a 7-step model for multivocality in cultural heritage, offering concrete tips to address omissions and bias in our understanding of heritage items. Lastly, Ben Mwasinga from the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) took us through the complex history of National Monument designations in South Africa (that started during the British colonial period), emphasising the need to understand the political and ideological context in which these Lists are developed. Furthermore, Mwasinga described South Africa's strategy for heritage management, emphasising a bottom-up approach to address South Africa’s shifting ideals.

In the following reflection, Journalist and Prof. Dr. at University of Manchester Gary Younge contemplated three key themes and challenges that had emerged throughout the presentations. First, Younge argued that monuments aimed at memorialising certain histories or figures in the long term are themselves somewhat conservative notions, because, while the world (including knowledge and values) continues to change, monuments, by their very nature, are static. Younge posed the question: “Why do monuments need to be forever?” Secondly, Younge discussed the power dynamics in monument creation and argued that we should reflect on who gets to put monuments up. Finally, Younge reflected on “The List'' as a canon. Given that National Monument lists are exclusive by their nature, as they involve a selection of what to add and therefore of what not to add, how can we talk about inclusion? Younge called for a permanent critical engagement with the notion and purpose of the List, and questioned whether societies actually need it.

Session 2: Interpretations of monuments

The second session focused on how different perspectives and untold histories about monuments can be made visible and shared. The presentations and discussion in this session emphasised a need for new ways of looking, dialogue and collaboration.

Gareth Lopes Powell from Historic England started this session with an introduction to the Missing Pieces Project; a national project encouraging public contributions, such as photos and personal stories, to the National Heritage List for England. Gareth’s presentation emphasised that it is people who give heritage meaning and who hold knowledge about heritage and it is therefore essential to involve more people in order to understand our national heritage better. Jennifer Tosch, the founder of the Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam, discussed research on traces of slavery in urban landscapes, stressing the need for a broader view on monuments and an ongoing dialogue about their impact on collective memory. Tosch argues that histories should be seen as intertwined rather than competing, advocating for a shift in perspective.

The ensuing reflection was made by Prof. Dr. at Utrecht University Ann Rigney who reflected on the dynamic nature of memory and the importance of collaboration across disciplines. Rigney acknowledged initiatives that allow people to contribute to heritage lists, indicating a move from a top-down to a more inclusive approach. However, she also raised questions about whether more heritage (as in, more designations of monuments) necessarily leads to more meaning, urging consideration of the challenges of managing diverse voices.

Conclusions and questions remaining

Throughout both sessions, the necessity of finding creative and inclusive strategies to navigate disagreements and contestations was stressed. Most experts emphasised the significance of re-interpretation as an important practice in the management of National Monuments, allowing these to accommodate and to share intertwined voices and histories. However, National Monument (or National Heritage) lists pose a serious challenge that seems hard to untangle; the very framework of listing involves exclusion, creating a complex dynamic when trying to foster inclusivity. Yet, considering National Monument lists themselves as pieces of heritage, examining the historical context of designation and legislation, can help identify gaps and promote a more representative list. Monumental Matters demonstrated that dialogues about National Monument lists mark the beginning of an important conversation rather than an end. As concluded by Gary Younge, “In the absence of a broader political engagement with our past, it is very difficult to have a current cultural engagement about our presence.”

If you would like to know more about the work of the RCE on these topics or would like to share your thoughts and ideas, please contact Sofia Lovegrove.

This weblog was written by Masja Bentzen Wischmann, Lorna Cruickshanks and Sofia Lovegrove.