Sometimes dealing with the past is easy.
A few months ago, the college where I am principal (Hertford, Oxford) handed back a precious 16th-century atlas to its rightful owners – the Humboldt University library in Berlin. A British soldier had been offered it in exchange for a packet of cigarettes in the devastated streets of Berlin in May 1945. His father was an Oxford professor and for most of the last 70 years the Ortelius atlas had been first buried in his room and then locked in the college safe.
The 70th anniversary of the end of the war seemed as good a moment as any to return it. But what struck everyone at the small ceremony was how affected the German delegation, including representatives from the embassy and Humboldt University, were by what we were doing. It was a symbol of Germany’s relationship with Britain within a peaceful EU, an act of friendship all the more valuable because it had been freely offered and a recognition that history had moved on.
But more often than not history’s legacies are more unforgiving – a minefield in which yesterday’s and today’s realities seem irreconcilable. Last week, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and another Oxford college, Oriel, found themselves in the middle of controversies..
Dutch painters in the 17th and 18th centuries were fascinated by the new human beings in their midst – “negroes” and “hottentots” as they were called. And such words were used as titles for the paintings. In 2015 the words are inadmissible, and the Rijksmuseum is gradually retitling its works, losing all “racially charged” connotations. Quite right. Yet there is no escaping another truth. The Rijksmuseum is changing the words of the time – airbrushing, if you like, a period of Dutch life – and its attitude to newly colonised peoples – out of Dutch artistic history. If you are an art historian, it might be an outrage. But if you are a non-white Dutch citizen, you will be as delighted as the Germans receiving their Ortelius atlas that past misfortunes and injustices are being addressed. As long as the original titles are not exorcised and entombed, it is a more than justified move.
Harder, though, is what Oriel is encountering. Cecil Rhodes was a student there; not only did he create Rhodes scholarships but gave generously to his college – and the Rhodes building that fronts on to Oxford’s High Street commemorates their donor with a life-sized statue. Now the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, having succeeded in getting a statue of Rhodes removed from Cape Town University, wants the statue removed in Oxford.
Why? Rhodes was the quintessential racist, British supremacist and imperialist, they argue; he should not be celebrated in a 21st-century university. Last week, Oriel conceded the argument, generally receiving congratulations amid the expected brickbats, and said it would launch a six-month consultation. Rhodes and his values, it declared, had no part in 21st-century university life.
Oriel is right, but has to tread carefully. Rhodes cannot be expunged from the history of Oxford, Britain and South Africa. What’s more, Rhodes cannot be regarded as a lone wolf, an especially abhorrent racist; the importance of race and breeding as explanations of good character were widespread within western culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Keynes, one of my intellectual heroes, was an advocate of eugenics as a young man; Woodrow Wilson, a great progressive American president and founder of the League of Nations, believed non-whites did not have the character to govern. Winston Churchill was as misty-eyed about the destiny of the Anglo-Saxon peoples as Rhodes.
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