Bringing the Statue Debate to Britain

(Photo: The Independent)

The debate around statues stems from the problematic pasts of celebrated individuals, often linked with the slave trade or colonialism. Do these statues continue to celebrate the figures, or actually serve as an important reminder of the past?

Recently, Nelson’s Column and Winston Churchill’s statue have come under scrutiny. Many people have begun to look past their achievements and to question whether men with a colonial or racist history should be celebrated in modern society.

The practice of whitewashing statues has been debated for a long time. Ancient Greek statues are primarily remembered for their white marble look. However, before the paint disappeared, many of them depicted different races. So, when we walk around museums, why do we mostly see the white versions of Ancient Greek statues? The Victoria and Albert Museum has a fantastic collection of historical artefacts, however, their main hall is overwhelmingly full of white, marble statues. One reason for this is that they were collected and placed in the museum in a period when this image was idealised, especially by those who had the money to financially support museums.

There is a huge inequality in representation in statues across the country. This year, Millicent Fawcett’s statue was put up in Parliament square where she stands alone as the sole female statue amongst many men. The Telegraph reported that approximately 2.7% of British statues are women, a startling figure considering women make up 50.7% of the population in Britain. Furthermore, almost half of the statues are of fictional women and an even smaller percentage are statues of women of colour.

So, why is the debate surrounding the disproportionate representation of women and people of colour through statues still happening and why does it matter?

Donald Trump wrote on Twitter that it is “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history.” This is just one element of a rhetoric used by the people fighting for statues to stay up, which celebrates a guilt-laden history. In contrast to Trump, others think this debate is about educating a new generation on a more comprehensive history of their country and its values.  Statues celebrate the values and actions of people in our society. Therefore, when statues are removed, and often placed in museums, history is not changed. Their removal allows a different perspective to be shown, as in a museum there is the chance to display various historical narratives through displaying information around the statue and other artefacts for comparison.

Trump’s tweet also brings up the issue of patriotism and nationalism within each country. If the statues today symbolise a “great country,” then the great country is one where women and people of colour are side-lined and not celebrated or immortalised as much as others. Therefore, the specific version of history that these statues epitomise does not always resonate with people today. Why should people spend money to keep statues in good condition when the money could be used to replace statues with new figures, figures who have helped society with issues that impact us today and will continue to do so in the future.

Climate change, gender equality and poverty reduction are issues that people are desperately trying to resolve. David Attenborough and Maya Angelou are some well known figures fighting these causes and would be recognisable if you walked past a statue of them in the streets. Furthermore, they would make people that share the same passion for the environment and for stopping violence against women feel empowered and would bring these issues to the forefront of people’s minds by marking a more constant presence within our society.

Alternatively, more information could be put next to the statue of a problematic figure to explain their successes and prejudices. However, most people would rush to their destination and regardless, the figure would still hold pride and place without a second thought. Nelson’s Column is an example of this. People often gaze up at the man who is immortalised and placed high above ordinary people. However, they hardly notice the black man engraved on the side, thought to be the figure of George Ryan, who worked as part of Nelson’s crew and might have been a slave. Without the efforts of men like him, Nelson would not have been as successful in his victory at Trafalger, and yet it is Nelson who is placed above George, and Nelson who is celebrated independently and introduced to younger generations as a hero.

There is no doubt that in 2018 this issue has started to change, in part because of the publicity it has in the media. However, for many, the change has not gone far enough. For example, the Cecil Rhodes statue (a man who stood for imperialism and institutionalised racism) still stands in Oxford University despite months of protests, and the stone figure will not erode anytime soon unless it is taken down.

Whether people take down the statues that do not represent them or add a statue of someone who does, this change is a huge opportunity to educate and inspire younger generations, as well as give those who were marginalised throughout history a greater voice.

Evie Sargent