Curate or destroy? Controversial public statues

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Thus goes the inscription on the pedestal of the great statue of Pharaoh Rameses II, as described by the “traveller from an antique land” in Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. This poem describes a great, ruined statue of the pharaoh, whose “shattered visage” gazes out over what was once his empire, now “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away”. Like that of the pharaoh, the awesome majesty of the statue has been stripped away by the passage of time and the fall of empires, leaving only empty desert.

The power of Shelley’s sonnet lies in the absence of power that was once there, in this case the symbolic power of a statue. Statues matter. This last week, #BlackLivesMatter protests have swept many countries following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minnesota. Among other things these protests have shown, very graphically, that statues have the potential to become focal points at times of heightened tension. This is not new: statues, be they religious iconography, political statements, or works of art, have a long history of drawing controversy and focalizing conflict. Often, this has as much to do with things that happen to them, as to the objects themselves. The Parthenon Marbles are a very obvious example: originally framed as cultural religious/political symbols of power in Classical Athens, de-animated images of gods and mortal figures of contemporary history, it is the events that have swirled around them since their removal from the Parthenon, which began in in 1801, that now dominate their narrative. Similarly, it is unlikely that Neil Simmons’s marble effigy of Margaret Thatcher would have gained the notoriety it did had it not been decapitated by Paul Kelleher as a protest against global capitalism in July 2002. “I haven’t really hurt anybody” Kelleher said, “it’s just a statue, an idol we seem to be worshipping to a greater extent”.

I do not plan to wade too deeply into the ethical debates around the destruction of statues here. Rather my interest is in what the present protests tell us about public spaces, the nature of public space, and how that nature has been altered in literate, Western societies by the digital communications revolution. Like most of my best ideas, this line of thinking is inspired by my students: In 2015/6 I supervised an excellent MA dissertation entitled Reframing the Memorial Landscape: the Emancipation Memorial in Physical and Digital Space which examined the spatiality and public reception of the memorial of that name in Washington DC’s Lincoln Park. This monument, depicting Lincoln freeing African Americans from slavery, has attracted controversy in the past, supposedly for promulgating racist ideology. This controversy was the topic of the dissertation, which noted that:

[i]t is important to understand how visitors are physically able to interact with [the statue] and how it informs the space surrounding it. To grasp how that public sentiment is promulgated and turned in to shared memories, it is also useful to investigate how users interact with the monument tin a mediated space: the digital space.

Drawing on this student’s very prescient observations, I am going to reflect a little on the present debate. I am also going to take the liberty of sketching out the bones of a solution.

The most obvious thing to say about a statue is that it is immutable, set quite literally in stone (or bronze, or some such similar medium). However, the public spaces they occupy are not. Whilst at one level, public spaces – such as Lincoln Park or, in the UK, Whitehall, Parliament Square, or Bristol’s The Centre, are regulated by legislation such as the Public Order Act of 1986 and other public nuisance laws, as well as the general slate of criminal statutes. In reality they are also regulated in the day to day by complex swathes of negotiation and renegotiation, by social norms and expectations, and the environmental parameters of what the anthropologist Tim Ingold calls “wayfaring”. All three of these places, and many others besides, were sites of conflict and protest this weekend, focusing on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the Churchill Statue in Parliament Square, and the statue of the slave trader and philanthropist (both of which are simplified distilments of many different things he has been called in recent days) Edward Colston, which was ripped down and thrown in Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matter protesters. All three spaces (and here I am giving isolated examples from many such spaces which have been in the news in the last two weeks) are far more than the sites of statues: and that is the point. What happens in them are local instances of the wider norms, expectations negotiations and parameters of current society. To put it another way, public spaces are zones of shared values and behaviours. If these are violated in a certain way, the law will step in; otherwise the taboos, prohibitions and standards all regulate what happens in them. This is the root of the debate about statues that we have seen in recent days.

In the past, these currents of shared values have eddied and bumped around the statues as they flow through the spaces, sometimes causing comment, sometimes vaguely outlandish reactions, such as Churchill’s statue being given a grass Mohican during May Day protests in 2000. In some very rare cases, such as the aftermath of invasion, liberation or revolution, statues are engulfed by those values, and physically torn down. The image of Saddam Hussein’s effigy being toppled and pelted with shoes in Bagdad is an enduring image of the Guld War of 2003. What Shelleian, ekphrastic power have historical statues acquired now that sees them physically targeted as never before? I believe – following my 2015 student’s very far-sighted lead – that much of this has to do with digital interaction. Not necessarily with the statues themselves, but because the increased blending of the physical public space and the digital public space leaves less and less room for nuance in either. The polarisation of politics and society in the last five years or more is well documented: as with most other political or social topics you might care to mention, the question of whether a statue of a controversial figure should or should not stand on a public plinth is now absolute and binary. In Parliament Square, as on Twitter, shades of grey flicker around great expanses of black and white.

I suggest, therefore, that the way public spaces deal with effigies of potentially controversial figures needs to evolve intelligently, just as the idea of a public space itself has evolved. Partly, this goes to the purpose of public statues. This, generally, is to commemorate their words and deeds – and the values they held (this, by the way, is why I believe it would be perfectly consistent morally to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College, but keep the Rhodes Scholarships – the former was instituted with the purpose of publicly proclaiming values, the latter with the purpose of enabling outstandingly talented overseas students to study at Oxford). Why should such a purpose be enacted and embodied in a public space which is inherently more polarized, yet more multivocal and multicultural, than at any time in history? This is a perfectly reasonable test to apply to the ethical and responsible management of any public area.

Speaking of history: the key argument in favour of maintaining controversial statues is that they preserve history (very often, this is qualified as “preserving our history” with little unpacking of who “we” are). Setting aside the fact that generally, when I teach history I tend to use books and articles rather than statues, the point above about purpose begs the further question of why statuary in public spaces is the best way to “preserve history” at all. I meant this purely as a dry, academic question, rather than a comment on current events. Museums are generally the places where historical objects are preserved, along with expert curation of their narratives (and counternarratives), and the meta-information that surrounds them. Clearly in my view, one option is to remove statues of figures such as Edward Colston to museums – similar arguments have been made for some years in the US about the Confederate Flag – where his sins and his virtues could be properly contextualized. However, where this is not possible, could we not designate small areas of our urban public spaces to be open air museums, with or without restricted access, where such statues could be displayed in a controlled way, linked (e.g. with QR codes) to a wealth of curated online information and context, and debates managed sensibly. It wouldn’t necessarily be cheap for countries with Covid-ravaged finances, but the news this weekend suggests that the digital age has challenged us to try new ways of curating information in our public spaces. And these may well not be cheap.

Because museums are the best places to preserve and understand historic statues, and to encourage debate around them. That’s why the Parthenon Marbles are in the British Museum isn’t it?

Author: stuartdunn

I do various things, but mainly I am a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

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