Written by Madylene C. Beardmore
The pulling down and defacing of statues and monuments is not new. It is now a commonly held belief that due to the volatility of Roman politics they stopped making new statues for each emperor and their relevant generals. They would create stock bodies in togas or uniforms and just change out the likenesses of the current leader and sculpt a new head.
From Roman times to the 20th century statues have been toppled without their being much debate. You don’t hear people decrying the removal of Swastikas at the fall of Nazi Germany, or questioning why statues of Eastern European dictators are being defaced in the countries over which they enforced their regime.
Yet in the last five to ten years we have seen a marked changed in people’s feelings and behaviours towards these physical emblems of, in some cases repression, colonialism and racism.
Tyler Stiem, in his 2018 article in The Guardian, argues that this shift is due, in part to the socio-economic shape of the world at this time. That the affluence and confidence of the 1990s, then followed by the polarising politics which this has bred (Trump’s America and Brexit), has created an awakening “little by little they began to connect the inequality of the present with the past.” And that “as the lens through which people view the world comes to feel insufficient, they go looking for deeper explanations and discover the buried continuities between the in justices of the past and the present.”
Stiem’s article discusses many examples of statues becoming focal points of discussion to illustrate this awakening. However, his core thesis stems from the Rhodes Must Fall campaign started by Chumani Maxwele in South Africa in 2015 when he threw a bucket of excrement at a statue of Cecil Rhodes on his university’s campus, in protest of this racist supremacist being immortalised in a place where he brought, entrenched racism and repression to the country, attempting to wipe out much of the native culture and becoming rich from the lands and resources of those he stole from.
This particular campaign set the tone for much of what we are seeing in the UK today. Whilst the dissatisfaction has been growing for years, 2020 saw this magnified as the world was facing the challenges of a global pandemic which only intensified the evidence of economic and racial inequalities entrenched in societies across the world.
In Bristol the statue of Edward Colston, who made his money through his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade was defaced, toppled and thrown in the harbour. Statues of Baden-Powell, founder of the scouts, Cecil Rhodes, have come under scrutiny across the country. Even Churchill, Wellington and Nelson, key characters in Britain’s telling of its own ‘glorious past’ are coming under dispute. Local councils are making the decision to remove statues before they become a target.
I do agree with the views of historians such as James Holland, that the removal of these statues does not automatically mean the erasing of history. We understand much of history through more mediums than the statues around us. It would be patronising and insulting to presume that we only have a sense of our past if it is cast in bronze and carved from marble. Indeed, many of us may walk past statues every day in our hometowns never even pausing to think that maybe there may be more to it than a decorative spot to meet or a striking photo opportunity as a tourist. Even as a curator my desire to preserve artefacts of the past is not as important as the need to protect human rights, and fair and ensure fair representation and justice for all.
But I do think that automatic removal is a mistake. What it does is take away a forum in which to discuss the past.
In his description of the stance taken on this issue, Stiem would describe me as representing agonism (modifying the statues) rather than antagonistic (pressuring for removal) or conservative (leave things as they are.)
Influential organisations such as the National Trust are investing in a project which explores the less than sanitary pasts of their properties previous owners. Using the forum of their buildings and parklands to better understand the fabric of this nation, how it was built and how these individuals built and maintained these homes, sometimes on the less than sanitary earnings of trades which objectified, repressed and at times murdered other cultures, communities and individuals. They have struck a balance where they are not owning guilt of self-flagellating but ensuring that we are now making the changes at organisational level to fully represent a more truthful history of our heritage.
I believe that museums, curators and heritage professionals are well placed to take this forward. Museums have for some time been evolving to better represent and interpret our past. For many years now the museum sector has been discussing repatriation, the use of language and representation.
We do not always get it right, there is a long way to go, but most organisations now have these elements entrenched within their structures, activities and interpretation plans.
By automatically removing statues, either through direct action of protestors, as a precautionary action by authorities, or as a marked and formal decision, we are robbing ourselves of an opportunity to work in consultation as communities to focus on what these statues represent, how they affect members of the community and what could be done to these statues to better tell the story of what they represent. Sometimes the answer at the end of this process may be to remove the statue. But the conversations which lead to this conclusion have the potential to heal much deeper divisions within communities.
The alternatives may be that the opportunity is used to change the interpretation of the statue by add wording or media to tell the story in a more honest and balanced way. So those passing or visiting the monument won’t be witnessing a physical emblem of an immortalised individual but a representation of the conversation that this statue started and the complicated past it represents.
It is hard to decide which judge and jury we use to measure the ‘goodness’ of past figures, but it would be refreshing to see a statue of Baden-Powell which lists both his important work in founding the scouts and outlines his less than pristine involvement in the controversial and devastating Boer War and his later involvement in possibly assisting the Nazis in their formation of the Hitler Youth. He is a controversial character, but what historical figure isn’t controversial in one element or another.
Madge Dresser argues that statues, those they commemorate and the style of them, are important for us to research the ‘changing value systems’ of societies. I am writing this as a white woman and I do understand that there are complicated and deeply entrenched emotions here that I will never be able to fully understand. But in the same way that I have witnessed museums striving to become safe spaces for difficult discussions, I think it would be beneficial for these statues to be dealt with in the same way.
For statues to be a reason to discuss difficult topics in a conducive manner and whatever the outcome of these discussions may be, whether that is removal, modification or reinterpretation, we would have reached that decision through the recognition and positive action of debate, consultation and honest reflection.