Book review: Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth About the Past

reviewed by Ammar Azzouz

20 Oct 2023, 8:44 a.m.

Monumental Lies book cover

Robert Bevan, Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth About the Past, London: Verso Books, 2022; 376 pp.: ISBN-13: 978-1-83976-190-4, £20.00 (hbk)


Robert Bevan’s Monumental Lies: Culture Wars and the Truth About the Past is a powerful book about the contestation of the built environment, the politics of heritage and the questions of memory and forgetting. It is a rich book that helps us to further examine the material culture as a contributor to understanding history and its horrors. It is a must-read book for everyone interested in the questions of heritage representation, diversity and the city, and the way to move forward after painful and violent pasts.

I discovered Bevan’s work years ago when I was reading about the deliberate destruction of architecture at times of war. Bevan was among the writers who focused on the erasure of history at times of conflict. His previous book, The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War (Bevan, 2007), is one that I have recommended to students, architects and researchers who are interested in the impact of wars on cities. But in Monumental Lies, Bevan opens new narratives about the built environment that are profound in scope and depth. He not only focuses on wars but also the times of ‘peace’ where violence takes place in different forms to erase peoples’ cultures and history.

One of these examples, which is analysed in the book, is China. Bevan references the research of architect Alison Killing who turned to satellite imagery to investigate the campaign against Xinjiang’s Muslims and the network of camps and prisons that have been built for this. Together with her team, they looked at the Chinese mapping platform, Baidu, and noticed that some of the satellite images were loading badly and that once they zoomed in, blank light grey tiles would appear. They looked at different mapping platforms, and their research has identified 428 prison compounds across Xinjiang. Many of them contained multiple facilities such as pre-trial detention centres, prisons and camps at times when the government in China insisted that these were ‘schools’ and not camps.

Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a Uighur woman who grew up in Xinjiang in western China, was held in a Chinese ‘re-education camp’ from 2017 to 2019. It was part of massive and systematic abuse conducted against Xinjiang’s Muslims, where up to 1 million (according to Amnesty International) men and women have been detained since 2017 in internment camps or sentenced to prison for years. After her release Haitiwaji wrote, ‘they locked us up like animals somewhere away from the rest of the world, out of time: in camps’ (Haitiwaji and Morgat, 2021). For two years, Haitiwaji was systematically dehumanised, humiliated and brainwashed. With violent interrogations, physical and mental exhaustion, Haitiwaji wrote that she then understood the method of the camps: ‘the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice’.

If we look both at the personal testimony of Gulbahar Haitiwaji, and the research of Alison Killing, a bigger picture is constructed on the violence against the Muslim community in China. It is the combination of personal narratives that humanises the story of suffering, and also the forensic research that, together, allow us to understand the scale of this suffering. In many cases, however, testimonies such as Haitiwaji’s remain invisible and unheard as people fear persecution for telling the truth or have not survived the events of violence. This is where Bevan suggests thinking of the material culture as evidence, as he dedicates an entire chapter to the idea titled ‘The Evidence of History’. He notes:

When eyewitness to the Holocaust (or for that matter, survivors of the chemical attacks in Syria) are no longer around to deliver their testimony in person, the material evidence must remain. (p. 213)


Questioning the past

Bevan knows that the questions of geography are essential in the research of culture wars. In Monumental Lies, a wide range of themes are critically analysed with cases brought together from different parts of the world: from tipping down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad to the bombing of peoples’ homes in Gaza and the reconstruction of Palmyra’s arch; from the banning of Muslims praying in the streets in France to repress the visibility of Islam and Muslim symbols in the public realm to the establishment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) free-zones in Poland, Monumental Lies urges us to read the city through its material culture and sculptures to question the past, understand the present and take actions to create a just future.

Take the case of Oxford, for instance, where I currently reside. In 2020, over a thousand people rallied for the removal of the statue of British imperialist Cecil Rhodes (1853–1902). Protests opened debate about Rhodes’ contribution to racial segregation in the Cape Colony and the violence in Zimbabwe, gathering in front of Oriel College’s main door where the statue is located at the University of Oxford. Protesters, including students and academics at the university, demanded the removal of the statue several years after the start of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, which began at the University of Cape Town in March 2015. Despite the collected signatures, the letters and the campaigns, the statue in Oxford remains in its place, but a plaque was added at Oriel College noting that:

Rhodes, a committed British colonialist, obtained his fortune through exploitation of minerals, land, and peoples of southern Africa. Some of his activities led to great loss of life and attracted criticism in his day and ever since.

In recent years, the statue has become a focus for public debate on racism and the legacy of colonialism. In June 2020, Oriel College declared its wish to remove the statue but is not doing so following legal and regulatory advice.

Different opinions and suggestions have been made about statues related to slavery and colonialism violence (Figure 1). For instance, artist Antony Gormley suggested keeping Rhodes’ statue where it stands but turning it to face the wall in shame so that he is not looking down at the people of the city. Another artist, Banksy suggested remembering the moment of tipping down the statue of Edward Colston which was toppled by anti-racism protestors in Bristol in 2020. Following its toppling, Banksy posted a sketch on his Instagram account to explain his proposal and wrote:

What should we do with the empty plinth in the middle of Bristol? Here’s an idea that caters for both those who miss the Colston statue and those who don’t. We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protestors in the act of pulling him down. Everyone’s happy. A famous day commemorated.


A protester with a sign that notes that ‘the power of the people is stronger than the people in power’ during the protests following the killing of George Floyd in the US. This was part of the wide protests in the United Kingdom which led to the contestation and toppling of statues related to the slave trade in the United Kingdom.

Figure 1. A protester with a sign that notes that ‘the power of the people is stronger than the people in power’ during the protests following the killing of George Floyd in the US. This was part of the wide protests in the United Kingdom which led to the contestation and toppling of statues related to the slave trade in the United Kingdom.

Source: Author’s own (2020).


The past is questioned, reopened and revisited as different communities want to feel that their history is told, and that they are situated within it, not sidelined, silenced or excluded. By doing so, Bevan offers rich analysis of some of the most pressing questions of our times: how do politicians, architects, writers, academics and local communities deal with the difficult past? How do they authentically rebuild destroyed buildings? Who has the right to be remembered in the public realm? And in addition to all this: who decides? In some cities, Bevan shows us, choices are made to bury and erase histories of violence and brutality as if to pretend that nothing has happened, whilst in other cities, careful and critical reflections and actions are undertaken to uncover the past in order to move forward.

Monumental Lies encompasses stories about monuments built to remember the past, the choices made for remembering and forgetting, the hesitations towards taking actions to respond to the changing attitudes towards the past, writing history through the material culture, sometimes sculpted in our names but without our permission. Monumental Lies shows and tells us that not everything we see in our cities and streets represents the truth. The past is sometimes built on lies, where dictators, slave traders and killers are shown in the public space as heroes and legends. Robert Bevan, however, with a firm voice and strong critical analysis invokes moments of history where people decide. Because the people want the fall of monumental lies.



Bevan R (2007) The Destruction of Memory: Architecture at War. London: Reaktion Books. Google Scholar

Haitiwaji G and Morgat R (2021) ‘Our souls are dead’: How I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uyghurs. The Guardian, 12 January. Google Scholar


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Building with Ruins and Dreams: Some Thoughts on Realising Integrated Urban Development in South Africa through Crisis by Edgar Pieterse

This paper challenges this conception of urban development policy and politics by recasting crisis as an opportunity (temporarily) to align and co-ordinate energies in order to undo the deeply engraved legacies of urban segregation and fragmentation.

Modernism vs Urban Renaissance: Negotiating Post-war Heritage in English City Centres by Aidan While

The article offers insights into the (multiscaled) politics of urban preservation and the renegotiation of modernist meaning in the city.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.


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