Toppled Statues: The View from Tasmania

Posted on: June 17, 2024 by

On 15 May 2024 the Tasmanian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (TASCAT) rejected an appeal against the 2022 decision of Hobart City Council to remove a controversial statue (erected in 1889) of the colony’s one-time premier, William Crowther (d. 1885).

Crowther, a medical doctor, is and, in his own day, was a controversial figure. He was suspended from his medical duties after an inquiry found that he had broken into the Hobart morgue in 1869, and removed the skull of the Aboriginal leader and activist William Lanne, replacing it with that of another man so as to avoid detection. He then sent Lanne’s skull to the Royal College of Surgeons in London for scientific study. Lanne, also known as King Billy, had died earlier in 1869 from cholera and dysentery. Crowther’s action, as Hobart’s current Lord Mayor Anna Reynolds put it, was based on “a racist premise, trying to prove that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were the lowest of the low in terms of human intelligence with Caucasians at the top”.

The spray-painted plinth

There had been a long running campaign for the removal of the statue, leading to the original 2022 decision of Hobart City Council, made following extensive consultation, whereby the bronze statue would be removed but the plinth on which it stood would be retained, providing the focus for a Reinterpretation involving “new elements telling the complex history of Crowther, Lanne and the culture of the 1860s and of why the removal took place”. Before the decision was made to remove the statue, earlier temporary artistic re-imaginings had included that of artist Allan Mansell, who had painted the statue’s hands and head red, placing in its grasp a machete and the Aboriginal flag.

However, on the very eve of the TASCAT judgment upholding the council’s decision to remove the Crowther statue, matters took an unexpected turn. Activists took an angle grinder to the statue’s ankles, toppling it to the ground. On the empty plinth were spray-painted the words “WHAT GOES AROUND” and “DECOLONISE”.

The toppled statue

Reactions to this direct action were predictably polarised. Nala Mansell, campaign manager of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Community Centre said:

I am not endorsing what happened but I think it goes to show that the people of Tasmania are people who understand right from wrong [and are] saying “enough is enough”. We have been fighting for decades for it to be gone. Good on them for taking that action and doing what needed to be done.

Contrastingly, Tasmania’s Deputy Premier Michael Ferguson commented:

Regardless of anybody’s sentiment or feeling, good intentions or otherwise, that’s not how we run a civil society. Horrible things happened in our history, but you don’t resolve history [through] vandalism.

The Crowther saga, and recent toppling, is the latest in a long line of disputes, sometimes violent, over 19th century public memorials to men (it is almost always men) implicated in slavery, imperialism and colonialism around the world.  Some of the most prominent examples include those of: Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Oxford; Edward Colston in Bristol; and Robert E. Lee in Richmond, Virginia. Such monuments have been the focus of extremely intense and divisive passions, with one side arguing that it is simply unacceptable to glorify figures whose actions were so harmful and whose legacies have lasting impacts to this day; and the other side arguing that to remove them is to hide from or lie about our history – a kind of airbrushing of a past which we must face up to and acknowledge.  We can clearly see these tropes in the debates over the Crowther statue itself.

The Crowther statue case also illustrates contrasting approaches to dealing with the monuments to these traumatic pasts. On the one hand was the administrative/legal slow-burn approach, culminating in the TASCAT judgment which would have led (and may still lead) to the telling of a broader, deeper and more truthful story about the colonial past.  And on the other hand is the powerful, violent, symbolic act of felling a symbol of racism and oppression – a modus operandi that several scholars and commentators have praised, and that was famously seen in the toppling of the statue of the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020.

The covered plinth

Whatever one’s view on the above debate it is interesting to compare the very different approach that has been enshrined in the UK government’s recent Guidance for custodians on how to deal with commemorative heritage assets that have become contested in England (October 2023). The long awaited Guidance comes off the back of several government legal and policy initiatives and pronouncements embodying the overall philosophy that to remove problematic statues and monuments constitutes a ‘censoring’ or ‘editing’ or ‘lying about’ our history. (With co-author, Professor Peter Cumper, your blogger has argued in the pages of Art Antiquity and Law [2023, Volume 28, Issue 2 at p. 38], that the ‘hiding from history’ argument is over-simplistic and fallacious, albeit there is not the space to reprise those arguments here.)  The Guidance to custodians echoes this position in its expressly stated under-pinning premise, namely that removal or relocation of such heritage assets would constitute “hiding from history” and this should not be permitted to shield us from aspects of our past that “we might disapprove of today”. Rather, the Guidance states, government policy is that “these commemorative heritage assets should remain in situ”. The only exceptions are where removal or relocation is essential, for example in order to make way for an infrastructure project or due to natural hazards like erosion or subsidence.

The Guidance does make clear that in ‘some cases’ it may be appropriate to not only ‘retain’ but also to ‘explain’, i.e. for contextualising information to be added, on the proviso that it is rigorously researched and subjected to broad consultation. Moreover, the Guidance does stress the possibility of imaginative, artistic and innovative such ‘explanations’ and is not limited to textual ‘information boards’.  Nevertheless, because of its unwavering opposition to the removal or relocation of contested statues and monuments, the effect of the Guidance is that they will stay standing, in all their monumental, eulogising and glorifying splendour. A bronze or stone statue, set on high plinth, remains as such, even if contextualising information, or even a counter-memorial, is installed nearby.

The Crowther/Hobart case, in some senses, might be seen as a somewhat tortured failure of process, with the felling of the statue coming simultaneously with the final decision to remove the bronze figure and to remodel the area in a much deeper and more multi-layered fashion. But at least there was an option via official channels to remove or relocate the contested Crowther statue in Hobart. This is an avenue that the publication of the Guidance on contested heritage assets in England perhaps short-sightedly appears to have cut off.

Image Credits:

The spray-painted plinth, Nikki Davis-Jones. The image is used here under fair dealing for criticism, review and quotation (s. 30 CDPA). If you are a rightholder in this image, please contact us at and we will happily respect your wishes around image use.

The toppled statue, Luke Bowden. The image is used here under fair dealing for criticism, review and quotation (s. 30 CDPA). If you are a rightholder in this image, please contact us at and we will happily respect your wishes around image use.

The covered plinth, Ruth Redmond-Cooper.