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Statues – the great debate


“Statues are about the present, not the past: they are about the values we want to celebrate through the people we regard as having represented them”, wrote Richard Evans in a recent issue of the “New Statesman”. The same is true of the names of streets and other public places. They reflect the values of the times in which they were created. As values are not set in stone, why should statues be regarded as permanent?

It would be strange if the statue of Josef Stalin were still standing in Budapest after being destroyed by the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956 or that the Adolf Hitler Platz in Berlin had not been re-named after 1945 ( it`s now the Theodor Heuss Platz in honour of the President of the German Federal Republic 1949-59). It would be equally strange if statues to the likes of William Wilberforce and Richard Oastler were to be attacked; no sane person would now defend either the Slave Trade or the employment of young children in factories (which Oastler denounced as “Yorkshire Slavery”). Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale fall into the same category.


Empty pedestal: the day after protesters felled the statue of slave-trader Edward Colton in Bristol and rolled it into the harbour.

However, few cases are so clear-cut. A problem arises when people in the present seek to impose their own values on historical figures by dividing them into heroes and villains, a mindset which might be described as “the tyranny of the present”. One might have hoped that Sellars and Yeatman had satirised this approach to History to extinction in “1066 And All That”, first published in 1931, but no such luck. Few historical figures survive this test. Looking into the future I think that Nelson Mandela will, but how many more? Winston Churchill, born in 1874 and whose first 30 years witnessed the British Empire at its height, was a man of his time, so why try to denigrate his contribution to the downfall of Nazism in the 1940s? Why should Mahatma Gandhi`s role in Indian independence be overshadowed by his views on the racial question in South Africa before the First World War? The most prominent monuments in Washington commemorate two slave-owners (Jefferson and George Washington himself) and Abraham Lincoln, who despite freeing the slaves held views on racial questions totally unacceptable to most modern ears. Maybe Washington itself should be re-named? Any suggestions?

Perhaps, however, more care should be taken when commemorating figures who were controversial even at the time of their unveiling, such as those of `Bomber` Harris and Margaret Thatcher? And the removal of statues left to public debate and/or vote rather than mob rule? Alternatively, maybe we should follow a Hungarian example. Statues from the Communist era have been moved to an area known as Memento Park, a kind of open-air museum.

It`s also worth considering why some statues, place names etc. survive without apparent controversy. Alexanderplatz is the acknowledged centre of Berlin. It was named in honour of Tsar Alexander I of Russia in 1805. It survived a Napoleonic occupation, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany and, astonishingly, Communist East Germany (DDR )- it was in East Berlin – without a name change. Why? Maybe the origins of its name were simply forgotten. Just like Trafalgar Square and Waterloo station.

By Henry Falconer

Photo credits

The Stalin Monument in 1953.
By Gyula Nagy – FOTO:Fortepan — ID 51885:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44684516

Fallen Idol: The head of the statue of Stalin laying on Grand Boulevard, Budapest.
By Fortepan adományozó HOFBAUER RÓBERT – FOTO:Fortepan — ID 93004:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47517681

The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour.
By Caitlin Hobbs/CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)


One thought on “Statues – the great debate

  1. I think it’s a positive thing that we debate this as a community. In Scotland Professor Palmer has suggested a plaque be placed next to the statue of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh. But why stop there? Why not introduce interactive features next to statues giving a balanced, nuanced account. The idea from Hungary of a Memento Park is also very interesting.

    Posted by Patrick Antony Harrington | June 26, 2020, 3:34 pm

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