Why statue removal enhances our culture

When visiting a foreign country, you will undoubtedly encounter a frozen figure towering above you. Who this figure was, what they stood for and what they did, can instantly give you an impression of a country’s cultural values and tell you whom they think is deserving of celebration and commemoration. This concept is summed up well by the researcher, Ashley Koger, who claimed that ‘The statue is a culture’s values embodied in stone and metal.’ Since the historical figures countries choose to venerate explain a lot about their culture, the statues we have on display in Britain should represent our current cultural values. This is however not the case as a considerable amount of statues in Britain are of morally unacceptable figures, whose behaviour we would condemn today, for instance, slave traders. Writer Afua Hirsch supports this view by arguing that whom we are venerating today is out of sync with the idea of who we are as a country. There is a tension between the fact that we know their beliefs and actions were wrong, yet we have not taken them off their plinths where they are being honoured, arguing that by doing so, it is ‘distorting our history.' There are flaws however in this argument as many statues were initially erected by those in power who wanted to present a particular narrative. They decided who was worthy of being commemorated, as opposed to who was actually deserving of it, and who best represented parts of our history. There were also often political motivations underlying the erection of certain statues, with the purpose of intimidating minorities. We now have the power to right these wrongs and give space to those who represent eras of our history and whose behaviour and actions would align with our current cultural values. For instance, a statue of an abolitionist could replace a slave trader, which would continue to educate the public about that period of our history and give the space to someone who made a positive, rather than a negative difference. It is widely agreed that statues teach us a considerable amount about the past and some would then go on to argue that for this reason, they should remain in their place. Statues however tend to have a more celebratory function as opposed to an educational one and they can arguably better educate people when placed in educational settings, such as museums which have the resources to properly explain the figures. We cannot change the function of a statue, but we can change where we put them so that historical figures who do not represent our modern cultural values are not being celebrated in our public spaces. Some may claim that by doing so we are distancing ourselves from figures who make us uncomfortable to confront, whereas we are actually breaking free of the restraints that were placed on us by those who erected them, by stopping certain figures from continuing to be celebrated. In the past few years, especially following the death of George Floyd, statues were once again made the centre of controversy, which has led to a series of protests in which many statues have been forcibly removed and in some instances, destroyed. If we truly care about preserving our history we should recognise the risk that certain statues are facing which have a considerable amount of people calling for their removal. We must respond to these calls before it is too late and key historical artefacts are lost forever. There is a need for preservation as admittedly their beliefs were once part of our culture and people must remember that these figures were once revered, but that does not mean we should continue this pattern of celebration by allowing them to remain on our streets. Culture is constantly evolving and it is time that statues moved with them. Many historians, such as Peter Frankopan would agree, that the job of a statue is to eventually fall, which they have done since the beginning of time, and that we should let the winds of history blow. We will make our mark on history, as opposed to re-writing it, by choosing new figures to be commemorated who represent our current cultural values, not the cultural values of, for example, the Victorian elite, who erected many of these contentious statues. ​ By Clare

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