Reconciling the Imagery of Our Past

Until recently, I’ve been a fairly quiet in public on current political happenings. I absorbed myself in my work, quietly sitting and contemplating the big questions of historiography. I have been a historian of empire for several years now, considering many aspects of how they are born, grow, and decline. Empire fascinates me. Not in we-must-get-back-to-the-glory-days, pomp and circumstance, flag-waving way. But I am truly fascinated by the political, financial, and social dimensions of how great empires rise, what sustains them, and what causes their downfall. I have studied the subject for years, possess an excellent, first-class degree in the subject, and have written numerous papers musing on historiographical questions and philosophy. I would say that I am fairly well qualified to discuss history and politics.

Recent events have been shocking for everybody to watch. What started as the murder of an unarmed black man by four armed police officers, in an 8 minute and 46 second strangulation and suffocation has resulted in mass protests around the world, where black individuals, and thousands if not millions of well-intended allies, have protested, marched, and yes, rioted, in demand of racial equality. Only a few days after action broke out in the USA, it hit sleepy little England like a ton of bricks.

When future historians look back at this huge event, what is likely to be the focus of interest, and what is likely to be shown to children learning about it, are the scenes of the statue of Edward Colston being unceremoniously ripped from its plinth in a handsome Bristolian square, knelt upon by protesters, and dumped into the nearby docks. This singular event has become a rallying cry for both sides of the argument; battle lines have been drawn, and it is scarily polar.

I will not delve too much into the flurry of activity that has happened subsequently, but what has become apparent is a dire need for a sensible debate about the history of Britain, and how we aim to portray ourselves to the world. The argument right now is far too raw. On one hand, we have a group of individuals advocating the tearing down of every statue with historical links to the British slave trade; on the other, individuals who willfully ignore the atrocities caused by the men depicted upon them.

Clearly, neither side is going to, or indeed should, get their way. Britain has a past, and it must be addressed. However, the anger felt by individuals over these statues of slavers means that something must be done. But what? I will return to this shortly.

Pro-retention groups cry out with passion that, ‘a statue teaches us about history!’ And in a very, very minor sense, that is true. But then, what can really be learned by the ordinary passer-by about history from a statue? Usually, a plaque will tell you who they were, and when they lived, and (as they are almost invariable paid for by the person portrayed or an admirer of them) a very brief, propaganised synopsis of their life telling a couple of the best bits, and ignoring anything untoward. What are we learning from the statue? From a historical sense, very little. Does it tell us how much they gave in philanthropic causes? Probably not unless it is on the plaque. Does it mention that the subject beat his wife, or was the town drunk? Also rather unlikely. What they do offer is a sense of period, of grandiose history, of wealth, and of power. Statues are not an unbiased historical document; they are a propaganda piece created to the glorification of that which is depicted. We learn little about the individual, or the period in which they lived, other than the superficial. So, we should tear them down?

Well not just yet. On the other side of the argument, these pompous creations are simply empty vessels devoid of detailed meaning. They are simply an item, showing an individual who lived, and died. They are not asking for adoration, or adulation, or plaudits. They only exist. Why in that case should they be torn down? If we are honest, many of these statues are incredible works of artistic merit. Wouldn’t their intrinsic beauty be worthy of retaining them in situ? Considering the recent loading of meaning upon many, particularly nasty individuals from history, probably not. Yet, as the supporters cry, they have stood for so many years without anybody bothering with them; why tear them down now, and where is the line? Do we tear down the pyramids as they were built with slave labour? It is hard to counter this reductive logic, so should we leave the statues in place?

Well not just yet. A third option is to remove the statues, and place them with a museum setting. This has its advantages. Statues could be correctly labelled, and their story told with the proper gravitas as part of a wider educational journey. But, closed away behind doors, the teaching opportunity is lost, and its audience much reduced.

I see two main questions emerging from this bipolar debate. Firstly, and most obviously, what should we do with statues of individuals that no longer represent our values? Secondly, where do we draw the line as to what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to display in public? I will answer the second question first, as in many ways it is the most facile.

The current issue with these statues is that they are representing people who still, to this day, represent a division within society that is causing pain and anguish. Slavery may be two centuries in the past, in Britain at least, but its affects are not. There are enormous wealth disparities between black communities and white communities, and discrimination is still apparent both within society and institutionally. So when is the cutoff? Should we be demolishing the pyramids? Obviously not, and to suggest so is the most cynical reductio ad absurdum. I would suggest selecting a period in time that still has connections to the present state of the world. In Britain, that might well be 1707, or 1607, or perhaps even 1492. I will leave you to look up the significance of those dates – and I encourage you to learn for yourself! This may be different in other countries, and necessarily so. However, these dates to me provide tangible pointers to a system in which we still exist, and is still relevant today. Why not demolish the pyramids? Well, to be quite honest, if you can find a person today who is directly affected by their construction, then I will happily demolish them myself with a hammer and chisel.

So, we should move our post 1492/1607/1707 statues into museums then? Well, no. I do not agree with that either. At this time. Perhaps in future. What we must do is both easy, simple, cheap, and will be remarkable effective and educational.

We must leave the statues exactly where they stand. We must allow them to remain where they are, in full view of the public. However, we absolutely must create a new national institution that places them within a wider network and context. I am talking about creating a whole new type of museum to Britain; a National Outdoor Monuments Museum, or something to that effect. Each statue would have close by to it some form of location sensor, or QR code, or… something which can be scanned by smart phone, and leads to an information page detailing everything about the individual and history of the statue. And here is where it meets the modern world; the page allows visitors to the NOMM to discuss the piece, reflecting upon what it means to them, and how they feel about it. Some may simply reflect upon a statues beauty, whilst some may consider more detailed historiography, engaging in debate about why an individual was great, or indeed evil.

These statues should remain public. But the information and emotive content that they carry that must change. With modern technology, this can be done easily, cheaply, and, with political will, incredibly quickly.

These statues are not currently devices for learning. Many are symbols to a barbaric past. But with modern technology, they could be repurposed, and transformed into one of the greatest historical learning tools at our disposal.


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