History is, by definition, past tense: What has already happened cannot be undone. But it is also continuous through time, our actions contribute to it, and how we see it is not set in stone.
Millions of people have shaped the world into what it is now. And the actions of some who are long dead are stirring ripples across the globe in 2020.
The Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd's death in the United States are a reminder that history can leave a real legacy and an emotional influence in the present.
Statues representing painful events that still resonate today and old values that do not, have been targeted. Monuments linked to the Confederacy, slavery, imperialism, and colonialism have been defaced or torn down during demonstrations in different countries.
Here, Hamilton is removing the statue of a colonial soldier, a restaurant in Akaroa named after a slave trader is being rebranded. The ongoing controversy surrounding the replicas of the Endeavour and statues of Captain James Cook show we also are still grappling with our past.
One striking incident overseas brings the issues into focus.
During a BLM protest in Bristol, England, a 125-year-old statue of 17th century slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and tossed into the harbour. Several days later it was fished out again, now destined for a museum.
Colston was involved from 1680 to 1689 in the Royal African Company which shipped 84,000 slaves across the Atlantic. About 19,000 died on the journeys. He later donated to causes in Bristol and became a Tory MP.
That tells a story of who had access to power and what behaviour was tolerated. A man who profited from slavery was welcomed in his day as respectable and many years later was considered by at least some of the city's citizens - but not all - worthy of a city statue, erected in 1895. Locals have reportedly been trying to get it removed in recent years.
Any columnists writing about how the removal of Edward Colston's statue is "erasing history" should read @DrMatthewSweet's piece on the statue's actual history. It was contentious then. It was put up by mad fan-boys: https://t.co/MPuiEsgyaW— Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) June 10, 2020
A BLM protester was photographed with his knee on the toppled statue's neck, imitating the police choke hold used against Floyd, an African American, in Minnesota. It all says clearly that racism is an ongoing oppressive weight.
To such protesters, assessing the past from the viewpoint of the present is about reckoning with unhealed wounds and highlighting wrongs and mistakes. From today's viewpoint, we can see who were ignored in their lifetimes in comparison with who were honoured.
For many, this moment is also about their country's historic actions. British historian Professor Kate Williams tweeted about the Colston incident: "So much of this country's riches gained in the past stem from the misery of others."
Scout founder Robert Baden-Powell statue to be removed in Poole following criticism from campaigners, accusing him of racism and homophobia https://t.co/zYQHsCjKV1— BBC News (UK) (@BBCNews) June 11, 2020
We tend to look at historic events and people through our modern-day lenses, rather than filtering for different times, conventions, and values. We see parallels between modern and historic figures. The world seems both vastly changed and yet unchanged.
New techniques show us people and events from the past in ways that make us feel more connected to them. Faded black and white old photos and film are brought alive with colour. That World War I soldier suddenly looks like someone you could see on the street.
Historians continually learn more about how people lived through discoveries from digs and applying scientific knowledge. They cast fresh eyes on evidence and give new interpretations that can be quite different from what we were once taught in school.
And new layers are constantly being added to history.
US President Donald Trump, criticised for his response to the protests, made plans to hold a political rally on Juneteenth, a holiday marking the end of American slavery, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa was the site of the 1921 Greenwood race massacre, in which 300 mainly African American people were killed. Trump later back-tracked and rescheduled the rally.
These developers have used AI tools to bring life to century-old footage of New York, Beijing, and Moscow. pic.twitter.com/tV10IfBpcM— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) June 11, 2020
There is a valid argument that historical events and people reflect the realities of their time – warts and all - and should not echo down the ages.
British historian Professor Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that complexity gets a bit lost in debates about historic figures.
"People who do good also do bad (and vice versa) and our own heroes and heroines will in due course be found wanting (or worse) too. Maybe it is the act of heroising that is the problem, not the inevitably flawed individuals themselves."
Controversial monuments could still be studied in museums – with context. We have a chance instead to highlight people in public displays who are a better fit with modern life.
Monuments have been placed in parks or underwater - like ruins from a lost city.
have long believed that we should put virginia’s confederate memorials in a field somewhere and call it “the museum of the lost cause” https://t.co/7ODcC48zCq— b-boy bouiebaisse (@jbouie) June 8, 2020
More recent history is also having a practical bearing on the protests in the US where former military equipment from overseas wars is being used by police forces at home.
Heavy-duty vehicles used in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with officers padded like modern versions of armour-plated knights, contributed to some heavy-handed riot policing in the first week of protests.
Some veterans of foreign battlefields have returned to join police forces, bringing with them knowledge of tactics used in urban warfare.
The imprint of America's foreign policy over the past two decades is being noticed at home.