Introduction from Ann Leckie to her new novel Provenance

  • 18.09.17
  • Harry Illingworth
Introduction from Ann Leckie to her new novel Provenance

In the US right now there's a continuing... maybe "conversation" isn't the right word but let's go with that... a conversation about the purpose of public monuments. And there's a percentage of folks involved in that conversation who have asserted that public monuments are "history" and that removing them is somehow removing or erasing history.

But really, what are all those statues and plaques for? They commemorate, yes, but why do they memorialize one particular event or person, and not another? Are they really essential to recording history? Why do we want recorded history to take this particular form?

The truth is, public monuments are not about recording historical facts or events so much as they are public statements about what we, as a community, consider to be important. They are public statements about our past that are meant to be claims to a particular status in the present. They are public statements about what we value and who we are.

Actual history museums serve a very similar function. It may be more difficult to spot, since we're not just looking at a few statues in a park, but at a much more extensive collection of art and artifacts that outline a narrative - but notice, that narrative is about how that particular city - we'll say city, I was just at the excellent Museum of London a few weeks ago - came to be the city it is today. There are always more objects to display than space, there are always other things the museum's narrative could emphasize. The ones the curators choose tell a particular story. Not THE story, not the only true story, but one possible story, that has a different set of implications and conclusions than the ones not told.

Art museums aren't that different, really, when you look at them from that angle. After all, what makes a particular work of art worthy or valuable? It's not just aesthetics - a painting everyone believes is by, say, Van Gogh, praised for its brilliant composition, its beautifully used colors, will plummet in value and importance if it's discovered to be a forgery. And yet it's still the same beautiful, brilliantly composed painting! This is partly because quite a lot of its value is based on it being part of a particular history - a particular story we tell about art. And because so many people want to be able to have a tangible bit of that story, of that history, whether personally, or in the name of their city or nation.

We all have histories, and so far as I know, whenever it's possible we all have tokens of those histories. To lose them - because of a natural disaster or a war - is traumatic. The history is still there, but those tokens, those reminders, those proofs of that history, anchor us somehow. They're part of the story of who we are.

I was thinking about these ideas while I was writing Provenance. The characters in Provenance live in a culture where "vestiges" - tangible remnants of ancestors or past events - are important possessions, ones that validate a person or a family's story of who they are, where they came from, and where they fit in their society. But what happens when those links to history and identity are taken away? Or worse, what happens when they turn out to be fake? Or does it really matter?

Maybe it doesn't actually matter that much. But those occasionally acrimonious conversations about public monuments, or which museum has which important artifacts, suggest that it matters quite a lot.

Ann Leckie