It’s been a long road. UCL has announced the official decision to remove the names of Francis Galton and Karl Pearson from its estate. De-named will be the Galton Lecture Theatre, Pearson Lecture Theatre, and Pearson Building on the UCL Estate. I’ve been working towards this since 2014. It was an important reason for my participation in the UCL Inquiry into the History of Eugenics. It represents a clear message about the racist, supremacist, nativist and Saxonist views promoted by these two men. It is right that UCL removes these names from the list of those people we commemorate.
This was a key recommendation in the MORE group report from the UCL Eugenics Inquiry. It was one of the few things we agreed on with the highly problemmatic chair’s report (submitted without the committee’s approval).
Does de-naming erase history? No. That’s lazy criticism; a demonstration of fragility. Commemorative naming is a matter of heritage: our selective use of the past to do work in the present. Heritage is a pick-and-mix process in which some facts are highlighted, then combined with other things, then re-organised for effect. (Here’s an example with a commemorative plaque for Charles Darwin.) Removing these commemorative names is an act of heritage, too. As our community’s values and needs change, so too do the heritage stories we choose to highlight. This takes us down a familiar road.
De-naming is not an attack on history. It’s an attack on ignorance: sometimes wilful, sometimes timid, sometimes accidental. It’s an attack on an approach to history that chooses to ignore ugly and unsettling parts of a person’s biography so that it can celebrate achievement on prestige terms. As with RhodesMustFall, statue of Edward Colston, and so many protests rising from BlackLivesMatter protests globally, pressure is on those who tell heritage stories to do less bisecting a person’s life and an institution’s life into “the good stuff” versus “the ugly stuff we don’t talk about”. As many, many people make clear, decisions on how to manage what counts as the good vs the ugly require cultural power. Decisions on what to talk about and what to avoid also require cultural power. For too long, that cultural power has been kept in exclusive hands. As a consequence, the public sphere is over-stocked with their choices for heritage and commemoration. In our modern times, this is contested. We cannot have an equitable community until that cultural power is reassessed. More voices. More perspectives. More awareness of all types of ignorances. More awareness that heritage can become the tail wagging the nation’s dog. More reassessment of who gets to decide on the rules.
History tells us our heritage evolves. Pretending it doesn’t change is the act that vandalises the past.
The next step should be a UCL-wide review of all its commemorative acts. The UCL Eugenics Inquiry obsessed over Galton and Pearson, leaving unasked important questions about the work of others in eugenics, such as Ronald Aylmer Fisher. Commemorations associated with them need to be reassessed. Beyond the subject of eugenics, UCL should accept that some of its commemorative acts are no longer fit for purpose, while other heritage needs to be brought forward to replace them. Simply put, we need to understand what we have and what we want so we can evolve our ecosystem to help us on our mission. I’ve mapped out a strategy for executive action to move in this direction. The end result must be a catalogue of commemorative acts that speaks for the UCL community now and looking ahead. There is room in this strategy for disagreement and debate. But the overriding demand is to address longstanding imbalances in power over who constructs the heritage that surrounds uni in our community and institutions.