Tag Archives: statues

Statues and History

Back in the summer, the people of Bristol chucked a statue of a chap called Colston into the waterways. It was a good move – he was a slaver and should not be celebrated. Of course there were a lot of people who felt that doing this was hiding or denying history, and that this is a bad thing. What is the relationship between a statue and history?

Statues are not put up at the time of events, or as part of something historical happening. They are, like other commemorative objects, put up afterwards. They are part of a decision about the story we will be telling about the past. In America, a lot of the statuary relating to the Civil War isn’t from that period, it’s from the 20th century and went up for reasons, and those reasons had everything to do with shaping the story. Taking the statue down is no more or less an act of shaping the story than puting it up.

The people who get to put up statues have money and power to deploy. Most of us don’t have an option on commissioning commemorative statues for people we think are important. It is worth thinking about the kinds of people who are officially considered important and thus get statues. It’s worth thinking about the relationship between the statue and the community of living people who have it in their midst. The act of designating some people as important and statue-worthy and others as not worthy of a statue, is a political process. I’ve not done a formal survey, but my impression is that figures on plinths tend to be representations of rich white men who were able to use their rich white man status to get something done, or more likely, done for them.

Most of us are not represented when history is depicted in our public spaces in this way. So, if lots of people want to take down a statue because it isn’t the story they want to tell, is that denying history? I don’t think so. It is re-writing. Most of us will go into history as silences and absences, never to be noted as more than a statistic, if that. The decision that a handful of rich white men don’t deserve any better treatment than the rest of us, does not undermine history, it just asks you to reconsider what the important stories actually are.