The discussion about our values, what represents us and what we want in our public spaces
Statues are put up in praise, they can be taken down in condemnation . That is not changing the past, it’s reflecting what we value in our present. - Greg Jenner
Statues are just one of the many forms of commemorating history, but they have become extremely controversial in recent years. They're everywhere. Most small towns will even have some form of memorial. And because they look so much like people, it's easy to find yourself becoming quite attached to them. But what happens when people's values change, and what has quite literally been set in stone does not?
A statue isn’t history itself, but instead reflects the events surrounding it and how they are later interpreted.
People will argue that you can’t just pull statues down because it would be erasing history. However, history isn't just what's contained in bronze and stone. History is the debate and discussion around a subject. History is examining documents and archives to piece together the events of the past. A statue, to put it quite simply, is just propaganda. However, they may still hold some artistic merit or historical interest for a variety of reasons. For example, some of the remainders of a statue of King George III sold for a huge sum at an auction in 2019 after they were found in a garden. The remains are now rather valuable, but that's not the reason the statue was pulled down. It was a symbol of revolution.
In 1776, General George Washington read out the Declaration of Independence in New York, which discussed lots about how George III was personally responsible for some of the abuses that New Yorkers felt had been carried out in America. As a result, a mob of civilians and soldiers hurried to the statue of the king and toppled it down. The statue was then broken into lots of pieces, some of which were even melted down and turned into musket balls to be used against the British in the war.
The reason why this story is so relevant today is because in 2020, Black Lives Matter protests led to people pulling down and attacking Confederate statues in the US. Protestors faced backlash from right-wing commentators, suggesting that pulling down these statues was an appalling act of erasing history. However, this was this kind of act that literally laid the foundations of their nation. The War of Independence began with the pulling down of a statue. Therefore, it's important to consider the context as to why both a statue went up and was pulled down.
How do statues tell us as much about the people who put them up as the people they commemorate?
One of the most recent examples of statues representing far more than the figure it depicts is the statue of Edward Colston, when it was pulled down by protestors in Bristol in 2020 and thrown into the harbour. Colston was a merchant and a philanthropist in the city, with lots of places named after him as a result. However, he also exploited the slave trade and managed to make himself a lot of money through it. He played a key part in promoting and expanding the slave trade as the CEO of the Royal Africa Company.
Things begin to get complicated when we discover that Colston's statue wasn't even erected in his lifetime, and it wasn't until almost 200 years after he died that the statue was put up in his honour. By the time it had been erected, slavery was already illegal, and the British Empire saw itself as extremely anti-slavery and was actively fighting against it. Colston's history was just very conveniently edited out when his statue went up.
The real reason his statue was put up was that the man who was responsible, James Arrowsmith, was worried about the rise of socialism. Philanthropy was then presented as an alternative, where bourgeois citizens would act virtuously to benefit the rest of society. What we can take from this is that the statue was erected in a 19th-century context of trying to gather support for civic society. It wasn't until the early 20th century that people would begin to really consider Colston’s involvement in the slave trade, and the conversation around him began to shift. By the time we reached the 1990s, there was plenty of criticism against him.
This is a clear example of how someone's reputation can shift so much throughout history and how the people erecting a statue can do it for a specific agenda that the person the statue depicts wouldn't have actually recognised. In Colston's world, 'socialism' didn't exist; it wasn't a word. He wouldn't have understood the opposition to it, or the opposition to his career. The story of his statue reflects how our values have changed as a society.
Nothing is set in stone.
The debate around statues has often been presented in black and white: conservatives love statues, progressives hate statues. Of course, this isn't true whatsoever. Context is so important. Each statue has its own unique history and meaning, and it can also mean something very different from their original intention from when they were first erected. Statues exist in changing societies, and we have every right to decide what we want in our public spaces to represent us. If these statues do not reflect our values, there's no reason to keep them in place.
Whilst it's not necessary to pull all statues down, it's absolutely worth taking a look at what they represent, and how they make people feel. If they give us pride and justice, there's no need to pull it down. But if they're responsible for serious hurt, it's our job as a society to consider whether it's really necessary to keep them up. For example, various Confederate statues in the US have become gathering spots for extremist organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Statues are created with the purpose of representing values to which other people in society can relate. However, when they do not represent current values, they can act as constant, painful reminders of the suffering and oppression of exploited people and minorities. In reality, they should be there to remind us who we are and what we want to be as a nation, and as such, statues that fail to represent this have no place in public spaces. There's no room in society for anything causing people pain and injustice, and if a statue is responsible for that, there needs to be a serious discussion as to why it still remains in place.
It’s fascinating to see the ways in which the meanings and debates surrounding statues shift, however we need to ensure that we do not set our entire communities in stone. Debates around statues will never settle, and different generations will continue to have different perspectives, resulting in an ongoing conversation that will last for generations.