Recognition, Reinterpretation, and Restitution: Universities and Their Contested Pasts

In September 2019, the Research Group on University History held its biennial conference at the University of Manchester on the theme ‘Universities and Their Contested Pasts’.  This review is contributed by Althea Cupo, a PhD student at the University of Manchester, who is researching the presentation of difficult heritage in museums.

Universities are experiencing waves of dynamic change as new ways of learning and content delivery are becoming more mainstream. They sense a need to be avant garde to stay abreast of the changes in the education sector, but also understand that the notion of antiquity, and the concept of continuing excellence it represents, confers status. A distinguished institutional heritage is desirable.  However, because universities, their historians, archivists, and museum professionals are committed to critical scholarship, it can be difficult to negotiate between the institution’s need for a positive story and its commitment to academic independence.

Three main themes emerged in our discussions of universities and their contested pasts: research and recognition of difficult heritage, reinterpreting heritage and renaming places, and restorative justice.

contested pasts Stuart Jones

Professor Stuart Jones, the chair of the Research Group on University History, welcoming attendees to the conference

Research and Recognition of Difficult Heritage

Research into and recognition of difficult heritage represent that first step to working through contested pasts. One presenter quipped that archivists and historians want to celebrate the past warts and all, students want to conquer it, and administrators want to forget about it (insofar as it fails to enhance a university’s positive image).

However, in truth, many institutions presented in the case studies, in addition to having some questionable heritage, had favourable, positive pasts by 21st century standards. The University of Manchester and the University of Bristol received donations from prominent abolitionists (who, strangely enough had made – or inherited – their fortunes either directly or indirectly from slavery). Additionally, LSE began as a night school to make higher education more available to the working class, in addition to pioneering the dubious science of eugenics. We questioned whether it was ethical to “allow the good to outweigh the bad” in constructing narratives of university histories. How can we tell all of these stories and present universities’ chequered pasts honestly and equitably?

Reinterpreting Heritage and Renaming Places

Reinterpretation and renaming are responses to accepting the difficult parts of a university’s history. While they are not usually financially costly, they often generate fierce controversy.

Kevin Grace, archivist at the University of Cincinnati, suggested that instead of removing or replacing potentially offensive monuments, we add more things to them to engage people in critical thinking about the past and its effects on the present. Removing, replacing, and renaming, he said, made difficult heritage less visible to future generations. Another person said that by affording such monuments space, we may be taking away from telling worthier, more inspiring history—are we somehow rewarding perpetrators by keeping them in the spotlight? One attendee spoke out in favour of replacing monuments and renaming places so that the landscape of the present reflected the values of the present; this would in turn give future generations the freedom to change the monuments that we erected to reflect their own values.  Universities should be places that inspire, he argued, and keeping statues to people who held values and beliefs antithetical to pluralism, diversity, equality and freedom can be counterproductive to that end.

The objection that changing monuments and renaming places was ‘erasing history’ was countered by the observation that any changes to the physical landscape would be accompanied by extensive documentary evidence, which would be kept in a university’s archives. Another person suggested that, as a rule of thumb, if nobody cares to learn about the people memorialised in the statues and place names, it is safe to elevate someone more relevant for public contemplation.


Kevin Grace, archivist at the University of Cincinnati, presenting his paper “Positioning the Facts: The Archivist’s Duty and the University of Cincinnati’s Racial Heritage.”

Restorative Justice

One of the keynote speakers, Professor Astrid Swenson, mentioned that the question of how to deal with the past of an “old regime” has been with us since the beginning of human history. She argued that reframing or “destroying” heritage was not, in and of itself, a sufficient response: there needs to be a “working through” because, as Theodor Adorno remarked, “We will not have come to terms with the past until the causes of what happened then are no longer active.” Restorative justice can be conceived of as attempts to put the causes of the past to rest.

The restorative justice discussed in the conference was repatriation of looted objects and universities’ initiatives to ‘pay back’ the amount of money that came from tainted donations to communities that were historically devastated by transatlantic slavery. One example that was given was the University of Glasgow’s program of paying £20 million (one estimate of how much slavery-derived capital the university received) to the University of the West Indies to found the joint Glasgow-Caribbean Centre for Development Research. While many applauded this initiative, one attendee remarked that care was needed in considering the motives and means of restorative justice programs to prevent them becoming a form of imperial paternalism, which might exert undue influence on the receiving institution.

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Professor Astrid Swenson (Bath Spa University) delivering the first keynote address.

In Conclusion

The Universities and their Contested Pasts conference closed after two days of productive and challenging discussion. It seems that there are different stages of working through difficult heritage, all of which can require courage and commitment. While there is no standard “best practice” for investigating and acting on universities’ contested pasts, we heard many excellent strategies that can be adapted to unique organisational cultures and community situations.


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