‘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 had been 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?

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.

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

Set in stone

Some say, of course. Since they are objects for public display, we should all help decide on who deserves to be commemorated.

Others argue that social media makes it easy to manipulate the outcome of a vote. And many people are badly informed: one statue targeted this weekend was that of Abraham Lincoln, who led the fight against slavery in the US.

You Decide

  1. Who would you most like to see remembered by a statue?

Activities

  1. People are commemorated by everything from gardens to libraries. Design a memorial which is not a statue for someone you admire.

Some People Say...

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in 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 plans 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

Jubilant
Feeling great happiness and triumph.
Plinth
The base of a statue. It comes from a Greek word meaning a tile or squared stone.
Effigy
A statue of model of a person.
Confederate
The Confederate States were 11 southern American states in favour of slavery, which 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.
Commemorate
To remember and show respect for (someone or something).
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
Met with defeat or death.
Mahatma Gandhi
The leader of India’s independence movement, who emphasised passive resistance. He was assassinated in 1948.
Revered
Deeply respected and admired.

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