Scotland is challenging the present-day importance of statues and their futures on the plinth
Writing: Rachel Kindellan
Statues throughout Scotland and across the world have been subject to renewed scrutiny over the last few weeks due to their involvement in the European slave trade, including Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, Robert Peel in Glasgow, and George Kinloch in Dundee, among others. This collective turn of attention to statues of individual historical figures is incited by Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations and the consequent anti-racism movement in the US, which is inspiring countries around the world to re-evaluate the implications of their monuments. Calls to “topple the racists” can be heard all over the UK, the most notable of which was answered decisively on the 7th of June when BLM demonstrators in Bristol pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston then dragged it into the harbour. This has reignited discussions in Scottish media challenging the present-day importance of statues and their futures on the plinth. Some of these discussions have been translated into change; the Edinburgh city council has recently approved, after more than three years of negotiation, a modification of the towering 45m Henry Dundas statue in St Andrew’s Square, despite a petition for its removal. This modification will be a plaque that outlines his political life and dedicates one sentence to the ~630,000 African people who suffered as a consequence of his prolonging of the slave trade.
The two most basic responses to such public denunciation of statues are total preservation at one extreme and demolition at the other. Between lie more moderate, pacific courses of action, such as plaques with text that reflect a change in social and historical perspective, reinvention of a statue using the original material to create a monument that focuses not on the individual but on the history, or relocating it to a museum.
Those who support preserving the statue centre their argument on education; it should serve as a tool to teach and remind us of the past, celebrating the good and warning us of the bad, or horrific. Adding a plaque offers a neutral option as it both satisfies those who demand that our historical reflection and criticism evolve with society as well as those who do not want to see history rewritten or erased. Haitian-American Professor Dr Peggy Brunache posits that statues can elicit discussion on the values held during the period in which they were constructed. Crucially, she says, they should not be taken down in an act of performative allyship - a phrase that urges anyone who considers themselves an ally to evaluate their motivation and impact in anti-racist activism. Moreover, Brunache calls removing a statue a potential misdirection of energy that would serve more efficiently in other forms of action; there are more effective ways to address the consequences of the legacy these statues represent, such as working toward equality and fighting for social justice in our everyday lives. The widespread project to defund the police across North America is one example of how communities’ and governments’ effort could be better spent.
Others, like historian and broadcaster David Olusoga, invite us to consider the possibility that removing a statue is not erasing or revising history, but is itself a part of history. In the same way that the construction of a statue reflects the values, power, and influence of those who were responsible in the time that it was erected, so too does its removal. Further, taking down a statue is not to deny that an individual existed, nor is it to destroy evidence of an individual’s life, career, and legacy. Instead, it takes away the emphasis from our pride in such an individual’s role in shaping today’s society. Dr Susan Mains, professor at Dundee University, prompts us to think about the role of statues, emphasising why we feel the need to commemorate individuals and embody their power and influence. The idolisation inherent in erecting a statue of an individual is exclusive and divisive; it memorialises history from a fixed and permanent perspective. Thus, the permanence of these representations clashes with our constantly evolving relationship to and understanding of our past. As such, it is to be expected that a society would outgrow a statue of one glorified individual. Regardless of whether statues are relocated to museums, demolished, or modified with plaques, what is important is that we engage more critically with how we frame history and consider more inclusive ways in which we can present it in public spaces.
Resources for readers
· “Revere or Remove? The Battle Over Statues, Heritage and History”
· Sir Geoff Palmer: “Don’t take down statues – take down racism”
· “Britain’s reckoning with its racist past”
· “Topple the Racists” List
· “Are statues history? What historians think after monuments to Edward Colston and other UK slave traders pulled down”
· “Edinburgh's Dundas statue to be dedicated to slavery victims”
Image via Wiki Commons