‘Let’s vote for who we put on a pedestal’

Fallen idols: Robert E Lee, Lenin, and King Leopold II of Belgium.

Should we vote for our statues? Memorials to public figures have been targeted by protesters in both America and Britain, raising vital questions about who we choose to put on a plinth.

There were jubilant cheers, there was a loud clanking, there was one almighty splash.

In Bristol on Sunday, thousands of Black Lives Matter protestors celebrated as a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was hauled down from its plinth, rolled through the streets and pushed into the harbour. An effigy that had provoked years of debate was disposed of in a swift act of collective outrage.

There have been similar incidents in the US and elsewhere in Europe. In Montgomery, Alabama, a statue of the Confederate leader Robert E Lee was torn down. Across Belgium, statues of King Leopold II (who created a brutally exploitative colony in the Congo) have been attacked.

Statues are obvious targets because they are such powerful symbols. They are put on plinths so that we literally look up to the people they commemorate. Pulling them down sends a strong message of change: when communism collapsed in the USSR, multiple statues of Lenin bit the dust.

All this begs the question: who decides on putting them up in the first place?

In Britain, councils approve plans for them, but organisations or members of the public have to propose and pay for them – and others can object. The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square has been without a permanent statue for 180 years because nobody has been able to agree who should go on it – or how it should be paid for.

Westminster Council insists on subjects “whose legacies will endure”. The problem is that views about individuals often change with the passage of time, either because new facts emerge about them, or because later generations have different values, or because they had both a good side and a bad one.

Mahatma Gandhi has long been revered as one of the world’s greatest civil-rights leaders, but his statue in New York was vandalised last weekend because some see him as a racist.

Edward Colston was honoured in Bristol because he gave large sums of money to schools, hospitals, churches and almshouses; now, however, two centuries after his death, his sins have come to be seen as worse than his merits.

So, should we vote for our statues – just as we do for our elected leaders?

Set in stone

Some say, of course. If statues can only be put up by those who can afford to pay for them, then the subjects will only ever be chosen by a very small minority. But since they are objects for public display that everyone has to look at, we should all help decide on who deserves to be commemorated – and also which sculptors are chosen for the task.

Others argue that social media makes it is easy to manipulate the outcome of a vote. When a poll was held to name a new polar research vessel, it was won by a joke suggestion, Boaty McBoatface. And many people are badly informed: one statue targeted this weekend was that of Abraham Lincoln, who led the fight against slavery in America and was assassinated for promoting black rights.

You Decide

  1. Who would you most like to see commemorated by a statue?
  2. Imagine that the world’s most famous statue, Michelangelo’s David, is found to have been modelled on a murderer. Should it be destroyed?

Activities

  1. People are commemorated by everything from gardens to libraries. Design a memorial that is not a statue for someone you admire.
  2. Imagine that you have been asked to unveil a statue to George Floyd, whose killing sparked the current protests. On two sides of paper, write a speech for the occasion and deliver it to your family.

Some People Say...

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments,but what is woven into the lives of others.”

Pericles (495–429BC), ancient Greek statesman

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Even before the current protests, there were moves afoot to take down controversial monuments in the US. They were accelerated after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, when a right-wing activist opposing the removal of a statue of Robert E Lee drove into a crowd of demonstrators, killing one and injuring 19. In the aftermath, statues linked to the Confederacy were removed from more than 30 cities.
What do we not know?
How the Black Lives Matter protesters will be viewed by future generations. They themselves could be commemorated by statues for instigating long-overdue and much-needed social change. But that might ultimately matter less to people than the fact that they, like the rest of their generation, also polluted the planet by travelling in petrol-driven cars, or exploited animals by eating their meat – so their statues could get torn down as well.

Word Watch

Plinth
The base of a statue. It comes from a Greek word meaning a tile or squared stone.
Effigy
A sculpture or model of a person.
Confederate
The Confederate States were 11 southern American states in favour of slavery. They broke away from the rest of the Union in 1861, starting the Civil War.
King Leopold II
Ruler of Belgium from 1865 to 1909. Historians have estimated that his regime killed as many as 15 million Congolese.
Lenin
The leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia who ruled the country from 1917 until his death in 1924. His embalmed body is still on display in Red Square in Moscow.
Bit the dust
Suffered defeat or death.
Fourth plinth
Since 2005, it has been occupied by a series of temporary statues. The present one, a winged bull made out of tin cans, is a recreation of a 2,700-year-old statue destroyed by Islamic State in Iraq in 2015.
Mahatma Gandhi
The leader of India’s independence movement,who emphasised passive resistance. He was assassinated in 1948
Almshouses
Buildings created as homes for the poor. “Alms” means a charitable donation of food or money.

Subjects

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