Skip to 0 minutes and 31 seconds[APPLAUSE] On a Sunday morning in August, 2017, Sydneysiders woke to the news that several memorials in Hyde Park had been vandalised-- the Archibald Fountain, the Anzac Memorial, and statues of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Captain Cook had all been targeted. What caught the headlines was not the vandalism per se, but the message. Change the date. No pride in genocide. This lurid statement of anger and frustration against the dominant public memory of white Australia was widely condemned. The actions were described by many as vandalism and graffiti. The dramatic gesture came on the back of a thoughtful opinion piece by aboriginal journalist Stan Grant. While analysing the change the date debate, he called out the damaging myth that Captain Cook discovered Australia.

Skip to 1 minute and 36 secondsDiscovery and exploration are acts of possession, colonisation, and empire building. The historical narrative of discovery is told by the possessors. The whole doctrine of discovery which underpins the colonial imperialist view of indigenous lands was not only invalid, but had been discredited by Australia's courts and the United Nations. The painted slogans on the statues were a bolder, more provocative public rejection of this same doctrine of discovery symbolised in Captain Cook's statue. The angry statements were quickly removed by authorities. But as heritage specialists and historians here tonight, we should pause and consider, should they have been? We need to ask some questions about the role of monuments and statues in shaping collective understandings of the past.

Skip to 2 minutes and 38 secondsWhat is the symbolism of Captain Cook? What has this historical character come to represent to generations of Aboriginal people and white people? What does the removal of the slogans say about the heritage values of this monument, and what about the social values expressed in that angry act of dissension-- or as some would say, desecration? We are not alone. Debates about statues in Australia come in the wake of similar debates and conflicts overseas. Here in Australia, what we need to ensure is that these debates about public history memorialization and memory do not disintegrate back into the polemic divisions of the history wars of the 1990s.

Skip to 3 minutes and 33 secondsWe need to maintain a respectful dialogue that recognises cultural differences and finds a way to express these cultural differences through public history, public art, and public memory. As historians and heritage practitioners, we should go back to first principles of assessing significance and make that historical knowledge available to all. In the Burra Charter, cultural significance means aesthetic, historic, scientific, or social value for past, present, or future generations. By this definition, I think we would all agree that the statue of Captain Cook can be considered a monument of cultural significance.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 secondsBut if we look at the social values that are part of the significance of monuments, then is the graffiti, change the date and no pride in genocide, part of that changing meaning of the statue? The debunking of the discovery doctrine still makes waves in this country. Why? Because it challenges the cultural power of white Australia. It threatens their assumed authority which is based on colonial imperialism and the myth of terra nullius. Consequently, challenges to official views are found by some to be unsettling. The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull came out and likened the vandalism of statues to Stalinist purges, warning their acts were part of a-- and I quote-- "a deeply disturbing campaign to obliterate Australia's history."

Skip to 5 minutes and 17 secondsI disagree, as do many other historians. This is not an act of obliterating Australia's history. It is part of a growing public consciousness to recognise Australia's history and to point out the complexity of our past. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

Monuments and memories

In this video Dr Lisa Murray talks about the public reactions to the graffiti on a statue of Cook in Hyde Park in Sydney. As a public historian she gives her own reactions to its removal and asks whether the graffiti “is challenging the dominant historical narrative.”

This video puts the differing views you’ve been following relating to Captain Cook and European exploration in an immediately contemporary context.

Follow the links in See Also to read more on the controversy that followed the defacing of the statue.

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This video is from the free online course:

Confronting Captain Cook: Memorialisation in Museums and Public Spaces

National Maritime Museum