Statue wars: dealing with controversial monuments

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Special thanks to Indigo’s Visual Arts Editors, Nicole and Christian, for collaborating with us on this piece.

The statues of two politicians involved with the transatlantic slave trade are set to remain on public display in the City of London. This new development overturns the previous January vote to remove both statues, a decision which Policy Chair, Catherine McGuinness, considered “an important
milestone” towards “a more inclusive and diverse City”. As of 7th October, the statues of John Cass and William Beckford will remain on display in the Square Mile, contextualised with informational plaques detailing the depicted men’s involvement with slavery.

Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London, was a notorious slave owner with investments in plantations across Africa and the Caribbean. Cass was a philanthropist, who accumulated his wealth through involvement in the Royal African Company. A report conducted by a City anti-racism taskforce had previously acknowledged that displaying these statues created an atmosphere of “non-inclusiveness”, which contradicted the municipal authority’s aims to make the Square Mile a place “where people of all ethnicities and backgrounds feel safe and welcome”.

Nonetheless, this approach has now been abandoned, following continual pressure from Government ministers to ‘retain and explain’ controversial historical monuments, as opposed to removing them. Former Housing and Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, was particularly influential in lobbying the City of London Corporation to develop an alternative strategy that would legally safeguard controversial monuments. These protections for ‘contested heritage’ sites ensure statues can only be removed in exceptional circumstances.

According to this line of reasoning, Cass and Beckford’s monuments serve as tools of “powerful reinterpretation” which can be used to denounce the City of London’s involvement with the slave trade. This angle is supported by Douglas Barrow, chairman of the City of London Corporation Statues Working Group, who claims statues like these “enable us to acknowledge and address the legacy of our past with openness and honesty”, placing history in its “proper context”. Both Jenrick and Barrow support “preserving our culture and heritage for future generations” by instead placing informational plaques next to these public displays.

Beneath Jenrick’s policy lies a disturbing undercurrent. It burdens public monuments with the responsibility of ensuring that “we don’t repeat the errors of previous generations”. However, this seemingly ignores the more prominent roles of schools, universities, and museums in ensuring we remember and learn from our past. Removal does not mean erasure, especially when statues are ‘removed’ to places designed to preserve our historical record. As expressed by philosopher Helen Frowe. “it is an illusion to think that statues provide valuable opportunities to educate ourselves.”

This ‘illusion’ is exemplified through the dramatic overhaul of Edward Colston’s statue in June 2020. The removal of Colston’s statue by Black Lives Matter activists opened up international discourse about Bristol’s problematic past. As noted by the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees, Colston’s empty plinth is a “powerful symbol of a city at a crossroads”. Here, the statue’s absence alone can provide explanation, undermining the case for retention.

To assume that public statues prevent the ‘repetition of errors’ is also to misunderstand the role of a statue. The current policy may view all monuments as neutral historical records, but many statues are commissioned specifically to honour citizens supposedly worthy of admiration and respect. The statues of Cass and Beckford, commissioned in 1751 and 1767, were created to glorify their economic and moral ‘achievements’ in advancing colonialism and the slave trade, promoting ideologies that are no longer acceptable in modern society. One must ask what is gained from displaying statues depicting racist figures publicly, rather than in museums designed to convey history’s messy complexity.

At their most extreme, controversial statues can facilitate racism, as seen at the Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally in 2017. As Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans warns, statues can emphasise problematic perspectives by placing them “literally on a pedestal”. Retaining the Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee worsened the cultural divide by enabling and legitimising white supremacist views, leading to the tragic Charlottesville incident that saw 35 injured and three dead. And so, what is the most effective way to address controversial monuments in the midst of ongoing culture wars? Political theorist, Johannes Schulz, proposes that the decision to remove or contextualise a statue depends on which method will stimulate respect between citizens. This suggests that statues should continue to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by local governments and the community, countering Jenrick’s one-size-fits-all approach to publicly preserve all ‘contested heritage’. Ultimately, the satisfaction of today’s citizens surely must be prioritised over the welfare of historical figures.

Image: KSAG Photography via Flickr

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