We pass them most days without paying them second thought. It’s likely that we don’t even know their names, even though they are emblazoned across plinths or displayed in bronze relief. They are the people who slowly turn green with time and irony; their purpose is to inspire the memory of the ones they imitate, yet we barely notice them. They exist as a blank space, not a Victoria, an Albert, a Wellington, a George, but just a figure, something in the gap rather than nothing. But not very much more than nothing.
Not that statues or monuments remain unnoticed. At certain times, they become highly visible and deeply politicised symbols, the material over which people fight in the name of history, culture, and memory. In 2017 in the US, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia sparked a renewed debate around the preservation and removal of icons to the Confederacy. The New York Times recorded the falling of statues across the country at the time, as there dozens of sculptures, monuments, and place names to commemorate the Confederate States of America.
The UK has not escape from the fight over statues, either. My home town, Bristol, was not long ago “torn apart” by debates over the 19th Century member of parliament, philanthropist, and slave-trader, Edward Colston. His name is on a concert hall, several streets, a couple of schools, and there is a statue of him in the city centre. One of the houses in my own school was named after him, but all have now since been changed. Colston has been commemorated as a great benefactor of the city of Bristol, having contributed greatly to its development. But the wealth he acquired came from his position at the top of the Royal Africa Company, which had a monopoly on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. How should he be remembered, philanthropist or human trafficker?
What should we remember, and how? Who has the right or the power to determine what it is we remember? These are much questions of history itself than of simply statues. In them we find the traces of where we have come from, or at least, where a certain person or society believes that we have come from, or should have come from.
These days we are not so observant of statues, though perhaps we have never been. Perhaps people have always navigated cities with monuments in their way and not given a second though to who or why or what. Statues are nevertheless projecting something, whether or not we listen to these messages. Much of the time we do not care for statues, but when we do it is for these messages that they become important. They are contentious because of what they symbolise. The controversy around Colston in Bristol or Robert E. Lee in the US is not around the aesthetic value or artistic quality of these sculptures, but what they seek to immortalise.
As is the case in any piece of art, there is more going on here that the craft of a single artist or the vision of a particular institution. Sculptures reflect, as much as create, the times in which they were made. They both contribute to ideas of epoch and are informed by them. Works of art always seem to function in this way. They simultaneously project and reflect, create and respond, innovate and imitate. This is true of the way that public statues embody both the general climate of the times as well as the specific motivations of the people who construct them.
Monuments to the Confederacy and to its officers and politicians in the US are especially troubling in this regard. Many of them were not built after the American Civil War, but in periods of intense racial discrimination and violence and at times when the civil rights movement was active and highly visible. The statues of confederate generals are not innocent commemorations to a past war, but in many ways reflect the societal backlash against the struggle for civil rights. They embody purpose and intent. They are not merely decorative, but are deeply embedded in systems of ideology and thought. Debates about statues are clearly never just about statues.
When it comes to statues of controversial figures and events, there are usually two positions: preserve and remove. Those who would preserve statues accuse the opposite camp of attempting to erase history, to ignore the past, to engage in collective historical forgetting. The removers are lampooned as Orwellian iconoclasts. The preservers are cast by their opponents as supporters of whatever injustice and oppression the statue has come to represent. These are the positions as they are often staked out, and we are led to believe that there are only two options: glorify or forget, praise or obliterate.
Perhaps the real issue at hand is context. Statues, and monuments in general, project a single message. They embody one version of history, one story, one side of an argument. There is no response, no historical or political situation surrounding them. Their providence is forgotten, even as their material existence persists. So they needn’t be preserved or obliterated. Rather, they could be relocated, contextually, physically, historically. That is, after all, the purpose of museums, to provide otherwise unknowable information about the fragments of material culture and the natural world in their transparent cases. They make known what is otherwise obscured by time and forgetting.
Moreover, when it comes to statues, it is unsurprisingly and overwhelmingly men who dominate. As of 2016 in the UK, 86% of statues were of male figures. The proportion of female figures rose to 30% if fictional or abstract representations were including, such as Truth, Justice, Virtue, Britannia, or the Arts. Even so, there is still toward a masculine norm. Statista, the source of these numbers, also comments that of the representations of historical women, a greater proportion of those are royals than among their male counterparts.
In 2018, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst was installed in St Peter’s Square in the centre of Manchester to honour her contribution to the Suffragettes and to celebrate the legacy of the city as a place of variously revolutionary movements. Her statue reflects public interest in the relative position of women in society, as well as the efforts of the Womanchester Statue Project to reframe history of the city as not purely male and to raise the public profile of significant female figures. Pankhurst was one of twenty longlisted women who have contributed to Manchester, and was chosen from a shortlist of six by the public.
One wonders what the limits of these symbols might be. There are surely better causes to fight than whether statues stand or topple, whether women are fairly represented among the population of statues. Women must be fairly represented among the actual population. The maligned descendants of slaves in the Americas must have the very tangible dangers of arbitrary arrest and police brutality addressed, not just the removal of the symbol.
Human reality is deeply symbolic, to the point that the material and social worlds are deeply interwoven. Objects are not important of themselves, but for what they reveal and conceal. Statues are not apart from their histories. A society cannot simply amend its symbols without reforming itself, in the same way it is hard to reform society without also addressing its symbols. The two go together. That is the very definition of ‘symbol’: sym = together, bol = to throw. It is both material fact and social reality that creates meaning.
How much do they really matter? I am inclined to think that statues (and their removal) are somewhat aspirational. They may aim to stir up the People with a capital P or provide figures behind which we can rally or to project an image of where our society and our cities are going in the future. But I can’t help but feel much of this message falls flat, out of sheer inattention. They are grandly self-serving, and hope to achieve much more than they ever could. They are, after all, just statues.
In some instances, as discussed, particular statues and symbols become extremely political. Many people find themselves thrust into a debate around statues they had never cared for previously, discovering opinions they didn’t know they had. Other statues remain in obscurity. Who is standing in Whitworth Park, next to the gallery? Which historical British figures grace Piccadilly Gardens? I am inclined to guess that there aren’t many who have paid attention to the plinths and the names and would know these pub quiz answers. The truth is that I barely know the answers to these tid-bits of statue trivia. I just happen to know that there are statues in these places, consigned to anonymity in full view. Until they are enlisted for new causes or held to account for violent histories, that is exactly where they remain.