Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Fear & loathing in Texas: The robes of a Grand Dragon of the KKK & some passing thoughts on statues of Queen Victoria

In the past while I’ve published two pieces on this blog about some of the exhibits on display at The Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, TX [here | here]. For some time I’ve wanted to ‘round out’ the series with a third post about another exhibit that made an impression on me. I have, however, hesitated to tackle this piece and – on a few occasions – scrapped the draft post, considering it a topic best left alone. The reason for my hesitation is obvious enough from the photos – the exhibit that caught my attention was a set of Ku Klux Klan robes, specifically those worn by the Grand Dragon, the highest KKK official in Texas. Previous to walking into the space where they’re displayed, my closest encounter with Klan robes was seeing them on TV and in movies like Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning and the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? I’ll admit that coming ‘face to face’ with these robes was quite an experience – it knocked the wind out of my sails and I came to something of an abrupt halt. In an era when such artefacts are almost universally regarded as egregious and offensive, it was a shock to see them displayed. Perhaps it is because there is a face mask to the robes with eye holes (windows of the soul, and all that) that I reacted to it in a way that’s different from any other form of displayed costume. When we see historic garments on display they are most often presented on faceless or headless mannequins. This was different. It felt that it had a personality - that some malevolence radiated from it. Of course, these were projections from inside my own imagination onto the garment. The robes themselves are, of course, blameless and no more evil than, say, Hitler’s lederhosen or Mussolini’s hat. The question instead comes from whether it’s right to display such an item and to what end?

I spoke with the docent on duty in the room and she outlined the museum’s policy and thought processes. The robes had been discovered by the donor during a house clearance of a deceased relative. After some consideration, they were donated to the museum who held them for several years, but did not put them on display. When they were eventually exhibited it was with the clear intention of confronting the racist past and not ignoring or marginalising any aspect of the State’s history. I probably spent longer at this exhibit than any other in the museum. Not just looking at it, but also noting the reactions of others. From what I could observe, opinions seemed to be divided between displeasure at its presence (up to and including vocal revulsion) and acknowledgement that it was an item - and part of a wider history - that still had to be negotiated.

I can only applaud The Bullock Texas State History Museum - they have created a poignant and though-provoking exhibit that confronts the realities of a racist past head on. At the time I saw this exhibit, I felt that this was no small thing, as it frequently seemed easier to remove statues, take down flags, and rename buildings than it was to deal with the historical issues and realities they represented. Until that point I had felt that many of these removals represented attempts - under whatever guises - to excise the uncomfortable historical past from public places. It made me uneasy as my thought process at that time was that any historical narrative that leaves out the difficult bits is no longer a true history, but something closer to myth. What I have come to understand in reading around this topic is, of course, that I'm not from any group that has suffered under these examples, so it may be easier to feel detached and analytical than I might otherwise be.

I also think that the key difference between the examples given above and the Klan robes is that the Bullock Museum's display is within a curated, educational space where questions like this can be sensitively handled. To clarify - these robes would have a completely different meaning and emotional resonance if they were worn in the centre of town than they do displayed on a museum mannequin. I don't pretend to have the answers - I'm still grappling with the questions - but I think that The Bullock Texas State History Museum have achieved something really special here in using a symbol of fear and hatred and creating place for discussion and contemplation of complex and painful histories.

All this may seem a little outside of my usual orbit of concerns and interests and, to some extent you’d be correct. However, it reminded me of the case from my childhood where the Irish government decided to part with the statue of Queen Victoria that had originally sat outside the Irish parliament buildings at Leinster House, Dublin. In 1908 the statue of Victoria by John Hughes – depicted as Irish Queen rather than British Sovereign – was unveiled to commemorate her visit in 1900. Following Irish independence in the 1920s there was a feeling that the statue should be removed, though this did not come about until 1948. After some time in storage at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the statue was quietly moved to what Wikipedia describes as ‘a yard behind a disused children's reformatory at Daingean, County Offaly’ in 1980. In all probability, there she would have remained, languishing in the Offaly sunshine and rain had it not been for a request from the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Australia, for the statue to be relocated to decorate the Queen Victoria Building in central Sydney. At the time it was seen as an expedient means of dealing with a painful piece of the Colonial past. I think that the statue and the robes became cemented together in my mind as about a month or so after I returned from Texas, Irish Cabinet papers relating to the statue were released under the 30-Year Rule. The papers showed that while the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the day, Garret FitzGerald, supported the plan to transport Victoria, he was opposed by two prominent individuals: the director of the National Museum of Ireland, John Teahan, and Minister for Finance, John Bruton. The latter argued that “The monument is representative of one of the many traditions of Irish history. It is part of our heritage in no less a way than Norman or Viking remains”. The text of Teahan’s memo to the cabinet is particularly eloquent: “If we are deemed not to be mature enough to distinguish between the art-historical merits of Hughes’ Victoria, for instance, and a symbol of authority, which does not or at least should not apply, I advise that such a figure be retained and protected until we have grown up sufficiently to look that Queen, long dead, straight in the eye”. The arguments presented by the Johns did not win the day and Victoria was sent on her merry way to the other side of the planet. I see resonances of both sides of this argument in my own reaction to the Klan robes and the comments surrounding some of the other examples given above – remove something considered to be painful and oppressive from sight vs retain it as part of the larger historical narrative of a place and time. It strikes me that another thing that these robes, statues, and commemorative buildings all had in common is that, in their day, they were considered appropriate (however one might like to define the term) by people in various positions of power. They themselves haven’t changed – times and attitudes changed … the world turned and these were left behind. The same goes, of course, for statues that came down in more violent/less structured circumstances in post-Soviet countries, post-Sadam Iraq, and not forgetting Dublin’s own Nelson’s Pillar

This brings me to another thought … what happens if our ‘safe’ statues of today fall victim to the crime of surviving into another era? In the shadow of Brexit, the possibility of Northern Ireland amalgamating with the Republic of Ireland has raised its head again. In such an alternate future, how long would the statue of Edward Carson (that stalwart of Ulster Unionism) at Stormont resist? How about Seán Russell, IRA leader and Nazi ally? His statue has already been vandalised and there have been calls for its removal. Times are changing in Ireland and the grip of the Catholic church continues to erode. As part of this process, is it not at least possible that we could foresee a time when the statues of clerics are moved and removed - Fr Theobald Mathew dismantled? Fr Michael Griffin put into storage and his road in Galway renamed? We can’t deny that the Far Right has made considerable political gains in both the UK and the US – in such a world could we not see the statue of Trade Unionist, Jim Larkin being lifted by his giant hands and placed on the back of a waiting truck? Such scenarios may seem far-fetched, but not so long ago the idea of removing a statue of Jefferson Davis from The University of Texas at Austin would have seemed outlandish too.

I realise that I’ve strayed much further than I ever intended from the topic of the Klan Robes. They set me on a mental ramble that has led me towards providing personalised contexts for how I might perceive attempts to alter public places and statues (some I would be in favour of retiring, others less so). I can claim no specialised insight other than to reinforce the view that there is a complexity of emotional and intellectual responses where these competing ideas and histories intersect. Again, I do not pretend to have anything approaching an answer to how we go about negotiating our interactions with contested heritage assets. But, a first step must be an acknowledgment that a variety of competing views exist and that no single group has exclusive ownership of the history of such artefacts. In this context, the museum’s approach in displaying these robes (although logistically simpler than, say, displaying a larger-than-life-size equestrian statue) is a particularly valuable step in seeing what can be achieved by an institution committed to telling the fullest story possible, not just the easy-to-digest bits. I still feel the we should not excise painful or shameful pieces of our history, but we don't need to preserve them in places of honour where the values they represented continue to cast an oppressive pall. For this reason, I think it's time we tapped the Australians on the shoulder and asked for our statue back ... perhaps it's time to 'look that Queen, long dead, straight in the eye'.

In many of my posts I ask that, if you like my writing & think it's worth supporting, you consider throwing something in the Tip Jar. While I won't object (and would be very grateful), I would ask in this instance that you put something in the direction of The Bullock Texas State History Museum - they do fantastic work in educating people about the history of their State and their donation page can be found [here].

No comments:

Post a Comment