Are The Statues Speaking to Us? UPDATE

An excellent article in The Guardian recently (Why Every Single Statue Should Come Down” The Guardian 01/06/21), by former Guardian columnist Gary Younge – now a professor at the University of Manchester lecturing in sociology – has come forward with a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of contentious statuary that plagues municipalities and cities throughout the world. Why not just remove all statues on public property without exception thereby obviating the difficult task of trying to sort out who’s who in the “good” and “bad” category? 

Ah, if only it were that simple.

Statues today just don’t get the props they used to. In his book, The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, (1997 Cambridge UP), David Lowenthal argued that there is a big difference between history and heritage and that commemorations and memorials such as statues fall into the heritage category more often than they do history. “Like religious causes, heritage fosters exhilarating fealties. For no other commitment do people so readily take up arms.” He observes further that ideological arguments over these “patrimonial legacies” can be “bitter, protracted and ruthless.” The cultural heritage wars, so to speak.

Professor Younge recalled several disagreements among people of good will that sprang from his own personal experience dating back to 2002 when the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, asked him to sit on a city committee that would jury a rather complicated problem of providing advice on a rotating contemporary piece of statuary in Trafalgar Square (see article above). The Queen Mother had just died and the Daily Mail began to editorialize that she should be the first to be remembered on one of the spaces reserved for statuary in the Square except that the statue, which was mandated by parliament, was required to feature an equestrian on the designated plinth and the Queen Mother (as opposed to her daughter) was never known for her skills in that area when it came to horseback riding.

The jury’s discussions and debates quickly moved past the aesthetical to the ideological. And why wouldn’t it? Bring any group of people together across the political spectrum and you will find division emerges far more easily than does consensus.

A statue of a notable historical personage is to the sculptor what portraiture is to the photographer or the painter. It is a commission granted to the artist to produce a work that is to be exhibited in the public sphere. Statues generally stand like sentinels in the out-of-doors while portraits generally hang indoors in venues such as national portrait galleries throughout the world.

But who gets to be a statue and who gets to have a portrait, standing or hanging in such prestigious locations in galleries and public squares across the nation? Ay, there’s the rub!

“I had no idea that I had built a bad guy,” said the artist Mike Halterman from his studio in Cripple Creek, Colorado, when asked by a Toronto Star reporter (one of 3 artists interviewed by the reporter for the article) about the sculpture of Sir John A. Macdonald that he fabricated 13 years ago after being commissioned by the city of Charlottetown, PEI. The statue will be removed from the downtown street on which it currently resides after being installed in 2008. Just over a decade later, as broader consensus emerges with regard to Macdonald’s blatant racism toward Canada’s First Nations people, a heated debate has emerged around what to do with all of the Macdonald statues that proliferate across the land. 

Although the artist is saddened by his works demise, he recognizes that perspectives change as time goes on. “I don’t flinch, what goes up can come down,” Halterman said.

Members of the monarchy, the aristocracy, captains of industry, military leaders, plutocrats, politicians – all take up a lot of space – be it indoors or outdoors – when it comes to commemoration. Gary Younge points out that many of the statues that have recently been identified for removal in municipalities across the UK are figures who were “pillagers, plunderers, bigots and thieves…”. 

Such is the case with the controversy that has arisen over the people versus the legacy of Sir Robert Geffrye (1613-1704). Although not addressed by Younge specifically in his article, Geffrye, a former Lord Mayor of London, has become the focus of attention recently by way of his financial interests in the slave trade of his day which helped to amass his fortune. 

In the latter part of his career, Geffrye built 14 public almshouses outside of London to offer assistance to the homeless victims of wage-slavery during his time. The almshouses site, with the attendant gardens, eventually became an arts and crafts museum when, in 1911, the London County Council bought the building and gardens, opening the Geffrye Museum in 1914. The metamorphosis continued, and in 2011 the museum was renamed the Geffrye Museum of the Home and finally, in 2021 after extensive renovations, it was renamed once again, the Museum of the Home – dropping Geffrye’s name entirely but not his hovering visage that stands majestically over the entrance of the place by way of a statue above the front door.

Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, it beckons one and all, “Mark me… Remember me.”

A statue dedicated to Edward Colston, a British slave trader from Bristol was another recent case in point mentioned by Young in The Guardian article. Toppled by a large group of concerned citizens during a demonstration organized by Black Lives Matter about a year ago, after years of inaction and dillydallying by local officials, Mr. Colston’s memorial (originally erected in 1895) found itself toppled, dragged through the streets and dumped into Bristol Harbour. A consensus, if you will, of concerned citizens (over11,000 of whom had signed a petition asking that the city please remove the statue) was being debated and discussed outside the official committee rooms over the years and clearly a strategic plan of action had emerged as a result!

About half way through his article, professor Younge shifts into a lower gear and notes that, “…this strikes me as a very good argument for not erecting statues at all, since there is no guarantee that any consensus will persist.” Rather than advocating for the chimerical (removing extant statues everywhere), this is a slower paced, and more reasonable (and accomplishable) question for any arts jury in any town, city or provincial body throughout the land to ponder: does the world really need any more statues?

In Canada today, we are mourning the discovery of 215 children discovered in a mass grave at a Residential School for Indigenous youth run by the Catholic Church in Kamloops, B.C. from 1923 until its closing in 1978. The deaths of the children were never reported or officially recorded by the nuns who ran the school and who were affiliated with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate order. Calls for the Pope to atone for the sins of the church and visit British Columbia in order to stand humbly in solidarity with the Indigenous elders are becoming louder. Spontaneous memorials have appeared in front of the the school and have been replicated across the country featuring 215 pairs of children’s shoes that represent the material culture of those lost spirits, an exhibition far more telling than any piece of statuary could be.

Also as I write (on Juneteenth), Egerton Ryerson’s statue on the campus of the university in Toronto that bears his name, has been pulled from its plinth after Indigenous people and their allies finally tired of Ryerson University’s prolonged ostosis even after a petition drive yielded 10,000 signatures requesting the removal of the statue. Some major media outlets in Canada, including the Globe and Mail’s op-ed page, defended Ryerson as being unfairly vilified until the very end. The statue was broken apart and the head of Canada’s residential school system is now resting at the bottom of Toronto Harbour.

Concurrently south of the border, the Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently marked the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, which the state of Oklahoma has officially referred to as a “Negro race riot” in various text books, historical plaques and other references. The events of that era reveal the extent of murder and destruction caused by the white supremacist movement during the early years of the 20th century, now being re-contextualized and re-examined by way of advanced forensic technology which recently uncovered a number of unmarked graves in a local cemetery close to the Black community of Greenwood, once a prosperous and thriving Black community in Tulsa.

A several hour drive south of Tulsa, will take you to Colfax, Louisiana, where on April 13, 1873, a white mob massacred 62-81 Black men who had gathered to defend the Grant Parish court house where city council members had taken refuge. The city officials, elected only a year previously, were part of a progressive slate supported by the local community. The attack marked one of the bloodiest incidents of the Reconstruction period. A historical marker erected in 1951 described the massacre as a “Negro Riot.”

The city council in Charlottesville, Virginia, the deadly scene of a white supremacist rally in 2017, recently voted to remove all statues commemorating the Confederacy including Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. The Confederate flag has also been removed from many public spaces.

And finally, the Chicago Monument Project is perhaps one of the most far reaching initiatives anywhere in the U.S. currently seeking to resolve questions surrounding “problematic” statuary by encouraging discussions centering on creating new kinds of public memorial space.

It is instructive to note that both the Indigenous communities in Canada and the Black and Indigenous communities in the U.S. relied heavily on oral histories to ensure that the events that affected them so traumatically were remembered and preserved even after the dominate culture did its best to delete the files of these atrocities from the hard drive of history, or worse still, commemorate the sites officially as events perpetrated by the victims.

Today in museological circles internationally a new typology of museum has emerged over the past two decades called “sites of conscience” which are essentially memorials, public spaces, historic buildings, and human rights museums that remind us, and more importantly, seek to educate us in a contemporary sense as to the who, what, where, when and why atrocities happened throughout the world. Robben Island (South Africa), Tuol Sleng (Cambodia), Gorée Island (Senegal), Valongo Wharf (Brazil), Auschwitz-Birkenau (Poland), Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Japan), Old Mostar Bridge Area (Bosnia and Herzegovina), the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Villa Grimaldi (Chile), The ESMA Memory Site Museum (Argentina), The National Museum of African American History and Culture and numerous others seek to be sites of memory as well as interpreters of traumatic events.

But still they rise, and so they should. The image of George Floyd has become an icon of the Black Lives Matter movement to end police brutality. His image lives with us now as commemoration in statuary as well as portraiture in paintings, murals and photography while his name embodies many other names that came before and after his death, all victims of police violence in cities and towns across the U.S. History has recorded these events, but it remains with us – the witnesses of history now called to the stand – to testify, interpret and contextualize the evidence for our own and future generations. 

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