Standing the test of time?

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The unseating of the statue of slaver and industrialist Edward Colston by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol has unearthed a polarising debate on how statues impact greater society.  On one hand, by removing a statue, some argue we are at risk of erasing history, failing to recognise the values of the time and the societal change undergone since then.  Yet, on the other hand, we immortalise particular individuals through statues because we believe they reflect values and actions that are inspirational. Because our values change over time, some argue that our statues should change with them.

If our statues are decided by democratic means, such prejudice towards race and gender will likely reproduce the problem we have now

It is fair to say that many of the statues we have today iconize the morally corrupt, from racists and sexists, bullies and alcoholics, to the greedy and violent. The debate can even be taken to Durham’s Market Square, home to the statue of the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry (1778-1854), army general turned politician turn industrialist. He was a vehement supporter of child labour, prioritising the profitability of County Durham mines over the safety, health and education of children. Despite being one of the richest men in Britain, during the Irish Potato Famine, he gave a mere £30 to alleviating the mass starvation, meanwhile spending £150,000 (£13.3 million today) on renovating his Irish estate. Should we be immortalising a man that inspires an uncompassionate self-serving capitalist attitude even if he did improve the transportation and local economy? It’s a common theme in the statue debate: how to weigh the utterly reprehensible actions and beliefs a person has against all the positive actions they have committed.

The first point of contention is whether most people are even influenced by statues. Many people in Durham do not know whom the Marquis of Londonderry is, let alone find him inspirational, so why are statues like his so controversial? To which the obvious reply comes: if people are not influenced by statues, why is it that we feel so emotionally attached to them, and why is their removal so controversial?

Regardless of the specific figure any given statue represents, all idolise an individual; this inspires the pursuit of fame rather than virtuous qualities and acts performed out of altruistic motivations. But removal of all statues, at the same time, seems also to remove from our streets any symbolic figures to emulate. One promising suggestion, taking note of this, is to have more nameless sculptures rather than statues of individuals. For example, our only icons could be a self-sacrificing soldier and a hardworking Country Durham coal-miner. They could promote virtuous qualities but also give an honest representation of British history. The Statue of Liberty is nameless yet universally beloved. Gifted to the USA by France, situated by the port where millions of European immigrants entered their new country, it represents friendship, opportunity and hope. 

An important final consideration remains: that tearing down statues is often perceived to be backed by a minority, and lacking a clear democratic mandate. Maybe, after all, it is not the removal of statues but the method through which it is done that is deemed particularly objectionable. The response to this is a oft-overlooked objection which brings into question the very foundation of democracy: that of socially conditioned unconscious bias. If our statues are decided by democratic means, such prejudice towards race and gender will likely reproduce the problem we have now: statues of white men representing the views of success and inspiration of their era.

Are any statues safe? Should any statues be safe? Just like the statues themselves, the debate is problematic and likely to be around for centuries. But it raises an important question: if democracy is not a valid way to solve this question, or at least to form a legitimate consensus, then what is?

Image: Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr

One thought on “Standing the test of time?

  • “Should we be immortalising a man that inspires an uncompassionate self-serving capitalist attitude even if he did improve the transportation and local economy?”

    I think it will have been a very, very long time since either Lord Londonderry or his statue actually ‘inspired an uncompassionate self-serving capitalist attitude’ in anybody – if, indeed, they ever did.

    I’ve been a Durham City resident, on and off, since 1954! – and I can say two things which in my own lifetime the statue has been, to local people:
    (1) A familiar, rather reassuring fixture which has been there as if forever, under which people would habitually arrange to meet, as it was a convenient and easily found landmark;
    (2) A memorial to a man seen as an odious tyrant by many descendants of miners and others who had been in his employ, in the early-to-mid c19.

    So, yes – there have been many who disliked the statue and indeed have thought it should be banished from the Market Place, because of the track record of Lord Londonderry the man, as an employer. But I believe these have been outnumbered overall by people who rather liked the statue and saw it as a friendly, reassuring fixture. (And personally, I see it as a remarkably fine one of its kind, expressive of altogether other and more inspiring things than industrial exploitation. After all, it is a work of art, not the actual man…) One thing became clear to me, in this: the opposing ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ views cannot be reconciled. I have had my own reasons for being ‘pro’ this statue, but I am not coming from where the ‘antis’ have come from, and while I have felt free to disagree and say why, I cannot presume to say their attitude has been wrong.

    My remarks above are buttressed, actually, by feedback I was given when leafletting in the streets in 2009 against the revamping of the Market Place and the moving of the statue from its original to its present position. The revamp and the moving of the statue were pushed through against enormous public opposition when the Durham City District Council had just been abolished, leaving Durham City (along with the other Districts of the County) without a local say in its own planning matters: these were henceforth to be decided at County Council level.

    The refashioning of the Market Place, and the hideous repositioning of the Londonderry statue as a dingy, skyline-splitting, looming figure at the top end, has destroyed the pre-existing aesthetics of place and statue alike. The Victorians who essentially re-created the bottom end of the Market Place in the 1850s-1860s, knew what they were doing, and made a remarkably fine job of it. The temporary quango ‘Durham City Vision’ and Durham County Council wrecked the place. There was no pressing or good reason for them to do what they did. Their scheme – and the way they went about things – was utterly perverse. I cannot prove, but can very easily believe, that a ‘Cultural Marxist’ agenda was actually driving the whole thing: something along the lines of, “Botch Durham City, destroy its civic heart, break its sense of its own history and its population’s sense of belonging, and roll in the totalitarian state with that much less resistance.”

    Rant over!.. But that’s my perspective on the Londonderry statue, and on how in connection with it my own sense has in recent years been sharply aroused, of the roll-out under headings such as ‘regeneration’ of virulently anti-cultural, anti-democratic administrative groups who will insist, at the same time, how cultural and community-minded they are. They are nothing of the kind. There is indeed a culture war going on, in Durham as elsewhere, and it is these types who have brought it.

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