It finally happened. Following months of protests, comment articles, arguments and counterarguments, the debate over the Oriel Rhodes statue has burst free from the Oxford bubble. For the first time the opinions of politicians and the public have entered into the limelight of this discussion.
Yet amidst the debate’s new national, and even international, platform, the same arguments that have dominated the student press for the past year reassert themselves. For former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, the removal of the statue would be “moral vanity”, whilst many people agree with Cherwell’s Henry Shalders that it would constitute Oriel “rewriting their most generous ever alumnus out of history.” But there is also sympathy for the arguments of the Rhodes Must Fall movement. Many do see the statue as iconography, a visible symbol of a colonialist influence which doesn’t exist purely in the past but also holds resonance in Oxford’s present. A single statue in a University with perfect demographic representation wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy; but in a University with a startlingly low BME acceptance rate and a disturbing slowness to move away from a Eurocentric literary and philosophical focus, it raises understandable concerns. It’s here that we begin to see how the Rhodes debate is not just about ideology and representation, but also about location. A statue which memorialises a proponent of Apartheid is incongruous in an institution which aims to recast itself as a space for progression and diversity.
The crux of the matter is what the University’s students believe Oriel College should be. Either it is an educational and residential space designed to get the best from students (both within the college and across Oxford) in a relaxed social atmosphere, or it’s a cluster of buildings dedicated to the preservation of historical symbols (however alienating they may be). Certainly, we’ve come to the stage where these two purposes can no longer coexist. Colonial iconography understandably alienates many students, and renewed interest in the statue will only lead to fewer applications from potential applicants who (as many students of colour currently do) feel estranged by the apparent memorialisation of such a controversial figure. And we mustn’t forget that the University’s structure doesn’t allow students to simply avoid the statue – they may have tutorials taught by a fellow at Oriel or even be reallocated there during the admissions process. From the viewpoint of an institution aiming for better ethnic representation of the most academically able individuals, the choice is a simple one. Oriel must decide what matters more: the wellbeing and potential of students, or the vitriol of those who aren’t even impacted by the statue’s continued presence.
Of course, the opinions of those who oppose the statue’s removal must not be ignored. Accusations that RMF is making a wishy-washy attempt to wrap Oxford students in cotton wool unfairly demean the emotional reaction of students of colour. However, worries that removing the statue would constitute an effacement of history have more validity; there is always the concern that destroying a visible referent of history facilitates the denial that this very history exists. Destroying all evidence of Rhodes from the built environment may well begin a process that ignores his role in forming Oriel College as it currently is. Ultimately the removal of a statue’s presence could even act against RMF’s desires, with Oxford’s colonial past sinking further into the mire of history. It’s no surprise that many argue history is integral in forming identity, and its symbolism should therefore remain untouched. And if the Rhodes statue were removed, what next? Statues of Queen Victoria can be found across London, Winston Churchill is edified in Parliament Square, and even the pyramids were built on racial exploitation. Should there be a global movement to dismantle this imperialist iconography?
The answer, of course, is no. History is indeed integral to the formative experiences of humanity, and visible monuments remain the best reminder of the processes – both laudable and immoral – which place us in our current position. Many historical spaces actively embrace and interrogate their past, recognising how interactions with history enable the criticism of its events (something that would perfectly suit a colonialist statue). Unfortunately the Rhodes statue’s current location complicates things. Oriel College (along with students across the University) naturally values debate and criticism of difficult topics as a form of academic pursuit, but it has become a hindrance for a space devoted to forward-thinking study and inclusivity to cling onto a colonial remnant which isolates students. The statue is a crucial reminder of the crimes of our colonial past, but if it threatens the University’s commitment to embrace each and every student then removing it is the only strategy remaining. To sustain its academic purpose whilst retaining as much of its historicity as possible, Oriel needs to find the middle ground and retain its history without seemingly honouring a colonialist patron.
The resolution is a simple one and, crucially, one which abides by RMF’s demands. Rather than the destruction of iconography feared by many, the statue requires a slight transfer of location. It must move from a space aiming towards diversity to one whose dedicated purpose is the preservation of symbolism and polemic. A museum would be this suitable environment. In a museum a statue is neither hidden away nor placed in an honorific locale; it exists in a space designed for the contestation of ideologies and perspectives. There Oriel’s past would not be far removed and would remain freely accessible to interested students, but it would no longer co-habit the same space as individuals who must live and work in the College. If anything the statue would become an even better symbol for historical debate than it ever was, on public view for those who choose to see it. Rhodes would be remembered as a part of history, where a suitable information board would enable his views and ‘achievements’ to be understood and repudiated in democratic fashion. History won’t be effaced, Oriel would acknowledge its past, and iconographic resonances would be moved from where they do damage to where they can be challenged.
So as Oriel College undertakes a consultation on the future of the Rhodes statue, they should bear in mind that there is a feasible, sensible solution with the potential to satisfy all parties.