A large bronze statue of a noble-looking white man stands in a park in downtown Nipaluna / Hobart. Next to the city’s bus mall, it pays tribute to William Lodewyk Crowther, a physician and Prime Minister of Tasmania.
Crowther is commended in the accompanying plaque for his “long and zealous political and professional service in this colony.” But the plaque does not mention William Lanne, the Palawa leader whose corpse he mutilated and the skull he stole.
Crowther was an honorary surgeon and physician in Hobart in 1869 when Lanne, a much loved whaler (and husband of Truganini, the famous Nuenonne leader), died. Lanne and Truganini were understood at the time as “the last full-blooded Tasmanians,” so their skeleton was of great value to scientists and naturalists. A veritable bidding war for the rights to his body broke out between Crowther (on behalf of the Royal College of Surgeons, London) and representatives of the Royal Society of Tasmania.
Crowther lost. Enraged, he and his son sneaked into the morgue in the middle of the night, decapitated Lanne’s body, stripped the skin to remove the skull, and replaced it with that of another corpse in the morgue. Then he sewed up the face again and went out. Lanne’s hands and feet were removed by another surgeon to prevent Crowther from returning and trapping the entire skeleton. His remains were never collected and his whereabouts are unknown.
Despite being held responsible for meddling with the corpse, Crowther rose through the political ranks and, in death, was commemorated in bronze and sandstone paid for by public subscription. Of course, there is no statue of Lanne in Hobart.
Over the years, there have been silent requests for Crowther’s statue to be torn down and now, as the international tide of opinions about problematic statues turns, the settler has been removed from sight, albeit temporarily.
Julie Gough, a trawlwoolway artist from North Lutruwita / Tasmania, has encased the statue in darkened plywood and added her own words to the pedestal: “We don’t have to look into the face of evil to know it’s there.”
Gough’s work is called Breathing Space. It is the third of four artist installations responding to the statue as part of Hobart City Council’s Crowther Reinterpretation Project, which began in April. Each artwork, whether on or near the statue, remains in place for two months – an attempt to engage the public in a conversation about the statue and what to do with it next. Take it off? Keep it? Amend the wording on the pedestal, recontextualize it, or perhaps add a second nearby piece that tells a fuller story?
Gough says he just wants her to go, and fast.
“I decided to lock up Crowther, to literally give everyone a ‘reprieve’ from his presence,” Gough said of his work. “To be able to literally see a way forward, a world without it, physically demonstrating that the sky does not fall, the world does not end, when a statue is removed.”
The first artist to respond to the statue was Allan Mansell, an Aboriginal activist who sought a more striking statement with Truth Telling: He covered Crowther’s face with a blood-red vinyl “skin,” painted his hands red, and added a saw. .
The second work, by Roger Scholes and Greg Lehman, The Lanney Pillar, included a moving film about Lanney’s life called The Whaler’s Tale.
A QR code on the statue guides passersby to an online survey. At the time of publication, just over half of the project, there were 120 responses, a number that Mayor Anna Reynolds called “pretty good.”
“A quarter of those surveyed think the statue should remain in place, unchanged,” he said. “Another quarter believe it should be removed entirely, and about half of those surveyed are looking for something that provides a more complete story, but doesn’t necessarily see the removal of the statue.”
Councilor Simon Behrakis strongly supports the neighborhood who wants to be left alone. He previously called the initiative a “project of feeling well awakeAnd he said, “We have limited resources on this council and limited time and we should direct it to areas where we can really improve society.”
Gough said that removing the statue would allow Aborigines to better interact with this central part of the city. She actively avoids the park due to its existence.
“The aboriginal understanding is that the statue of this man should be removed, given his history,” he said. “Crowther’s presence in statue form has for 132 years offended, openly disrespected and ignored Aboriginal sentiments, while affirming the power and might of the ongoing Anglo-British rule of this island as it nullifies the anguish of the first peoples.
“And regardless … why and how can any statue of anyone not have an expiration date?”
The next installation will be by Jillian Mundy, photographer and journalist, and will be released in November.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism