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  • Writer's pictureCultural Practices


Sophie Ernst, Silent Empress, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Sophie Ernst, Silent Empress, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

With Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the Colston statue still making headlines in the UK calls to do something about statues with racist or colonial histories grow ever more urgent. Options for dealing with these monuments are increasingly contested and the cause of real anxiety and anger.

In ICP we aim to offer students safe learning spaces and opportunities to examine critically contentious issues in heritage and culture, guided by insight and expertise from colleagues at the university and, further afield, from our cultural and heritage partners. With this in mind, we have begun to consult on the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, especially issues related to the arts, cultural heritage and university curricula.

For this piece we have reached out to friends and colleagues for opinions on the question “What now for public statues with racist, colonial or imperial histories?”. If you would like to contribute to this conversation, please contact:

Hammad Nasar

Hammad Nasar is Senior Research Fellow at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art; Principal Research Fellow at the University of the Arts, London; and co-curator of British Art Show 9. He was the inaugural Executive Director of the Stuart Hall Foundation, London, where he initiated the ‘Let Our Statues Speak’ project.

In Silent Empress (2012), a public commission for Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the artist Sophie Ernst, attached a sound tag to a public statue of Queen Victoria in Wakefield. The sound was a monologue emanating from a megaphone temporarily positioned in front of the statue’s face. Comprising quotes from Victoria’s journals and letters, and texts by past Prime Ministers, it gestured towards an apology for Britain’s colonial past. The statue spoke for barely 30 minutes before Wakefield Council decided it was ‘disrespectful’ and needed to come down. This was unfortunate. In mature democracies we need to let our statues speak.

Sophie Ernst, Silent Empress, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Sophie Ernst, Silent Empress, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

National histories are not national facts; they are stories in which figures commemorated in our city squares play central roles. Toppling statues may declutter public spaces and offer a short-term balm for deep wounds, but they do little to question our foundational myths. Most of these statues were financed through public subscriptions. Their removal, replacement or recontextualisation should also be a communal enterprise; a public acknowledgement of Britain’s uncomfortable histories. Artists, working with museums and schools, can help us engage in these difficult public conversations as acts of healing and repair, and open up paths to more hopeful collective futures.

Sophie Ernst, Silent Empress, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Sophie Ernst, Silent Empress, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Bridget Byrne

Bridget Byrne, Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester. Director of the Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE)

We need an approach to public statues which recognises that our understanding of how history is understood and who should be commemorated changes over time. So this means how statues are described, and whether they still have their place in public spaces should be understood in a more flexible way. Statues that represent colonial figures with racist pasts can tell us a lot about the position of colonialism and white supremacy in our national history – so they can certainly be learnt from, but they don’t necessarily need to be in public spaces for us to do that learning. We need public consultations about whether to leave them in place, but explain their histories better, or whether to take them down. Leaving them untouched and continuing to celebrate colonial and racist pasts should not be an option. Many public campaigns about changing statues have gone on for too long with no action. Museums may wish to take some historic statues in, but I’m not convinced that this is always appropriate – it should be led by whether the museums think there is a worthwhile story to be told around the individual or collection of statues.

Jean-Francois Manicom

Jean-Francois Manicom. Curator of Transatlantic Slavery and legacies. International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

The burning debate in the UK right now, like in the rest of Europe, is to figure out what to do with statues of famous men of the past that where once erected to celebrate the glory of slavery, imperialism and colonialism. Do they belong to the public space? And if they do, how should such a past, which ambivalence has never been addressed before, stand in the public space?

Breaking, toppling down or taking away a statue is certainly not an anecdotal gesture. In human history, there’s a long tradition of such things, and this is what we shall question and use as a basis to turn the debate into an effective and positive one.

What about we invent new ways to take care of our past? Without having to erase history, why don’t we instead decide to work it out for a better future and stop repeating the mistakes of the past? We should ask ourselves: what are the foundational values of our country that bring our people together? We should ask communities, historians and academics to join the debate. We should consult local residents about what they think.

As an art curator, I wonder if it would be interesting to look beyond the statue and go back to what it’s made of: bronze, a material which is national heritage. Why not use it to create new pieces of art that would represent today’s national values – freedom and tolerance – exactly opposite to what slave traders stood for? Why not commission artists to modify a statue and transform the aesthetics and symbolic codes it was first based upon?

Could national museums become cemeteries of statues which values have become unacceptable in the public space, but that belong to the past of the nation?

Shall we plant trees instead of statues, offering shelter from the rain and shadow from the sun and who would grow with our children and grand children?

Those are for me are the real questions of this debate.

Amal Khalaf

Amal Khalaf, director of programmes, Cubitt and civic curator, Serpentine Galleries.

I have been glued to my phone watching videos circulating on social media of statues celebrating colonial and racist heroes falling all over the world. As I watched Colston’s statue falling into Bristol’s harbour, the part of me that thought that these statues would always be there disappeared.

These statues celebrate the worst of humanity; colonisers, murderers, kidnappers and perpetrators of harm much greater than the stolen wealth they brought back to Britain. They are being removed by the hands of people demanding change and justice, people no longer willing to live with these symbols. I am tacitly hopeful that (this time, maybe) the idea of white supremacy and racial superiority that these symbols uphold are finally being removed from our societies. Though such shifts require much stamina, visioning and imagination, these empty plinths are full of possibility, like open wounds they invite healing. This healing won’t be a fast process, and it should not be led by institutions, museums and governments built on centuries of colonialism. As a space of radical possibility these wounds must heal in their own time and on the terms of those to whom these statues and what they stood for perpetuated the most harm.

Stephen Welsh

Stephen Welsh is curator and museum consultant

Over the past several decades, in response to tireless activism by countries of origin, source communities and Indigenous peoples, and in accordance with their cultural needs and beliefs, museums across the UK have been removing ancestral human remains and sacred objects from galleries and exhibitions, and some have been repatriating them. This shift has been accompanied by a recognition that the display and retention of these ancestors and sacred objects is a colonial legacy that inflicts trauma on descendants and traditional owners, and perpetuates paternalism. The parallels with the public display of statues with racist, colonial or imperial histories are clear. Their continued presence ignores how they exclude and oppress many Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, whilst allowing for the incessant promotion of racism and colonialism.

Museums should respond to the activism and needs of those communities most affected by these statues, and working in solidarity with them help develop and deliver projects that include the physical, cultural and intellectual dismantling of such monuments and what they represent. These projects would have the potential to facilitate truth telling and reconciliation, and create inclusive public spaces, just as the removal from display and repatriation of ancestors and sacred objects has.

Jenna Ashton

Dr Jenna C. Ashton, Lecturer and Programme Director, Heritage Studies, Institute for Cultural Practices , The University of Manchester. She is Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee Rep for AHCP. @heritagemcr

After a quick assessment of the media and public response, I came up with a list of the emerging categories of people for and against the review of public sculpture:

FOR: a.) Activists concerned with oppression and violence against people, sculpture just part of the narrative. b.) Those committed to anti-racism, understand the social and political function of public art, space & culture. c.) A general interest in public art/sculpture, less aware of anti-racism issues. d.) Cynical real-estate opportunists. e.) Accidentally involved in the conversation due to position or role, not genuinely committed to anti-racism and institutional change. f.) Trolls hiding behind social media accounts. No genuine feelings either way, just like to stir. …

AGAINST: g.) Trolls hiding behind social media accounts. No genuine feelings either way, just like to stir. h.) Local heritage activists involved in numerous anti-destruction campaigns. They have witnessed extreme changes to their local built environment without consent or consultation. Suspicious of change; angry at officials; don’t always understand racism. i.) Individuals who like art and supposedly fearful of any iconoclasm, but do little to challenge the destruction of black, indigenous and working class culture. j.) Faux historians (sometimes doubling up as politicians), misquoting Orwell, not concerned with anti-racism, want to retain privilege, no critical or intellectual engagement with the public realm (or arts). k.) Those waiting for football matches to resume.

My tongue is only partly wedged in my cheek.

We obviously have to broaden the discussion beyond statues, or that becomes a convenient distraction for the bigger work that has to be done. However, statues are an important focus for BLM activism given they are the material manifestation of patriarchal and racist politics. Commemorative statues and sculptures are designed to inscribe into a landscape certain ideas and ideologies; the aim is to dominate the visual and physical experience of public space.

More generally, I think a longer-term opening up of education and participation around public art is needed. Going on the ignorance (or fear?) expressed in response to the statue removal, people seem to have minimal understanding of how public art functions socially, spatially and politically. This is unsurprising in many ways. Arts education is creaking under de-investment, and little opportunity is offered for people to meaningfully participate in exploring and shaping their built and public environments.

Regarding the rehousing of statues within museums, our collections are already overly representative of dead white men and their crimes. Time to shift the narrative, perspective and cultural production to that of the victims, survivors and ancestors. Evidencing the removal of statues as part of BLM heritage activism is important. There’s an opportunity to ensure BLM resistance remains at the forefront of discussions. Additionally, we need to keep an eye on the people with power in categories “e” and “j”, in terms of how consultation evolves. After all, the issue here is anti-racism and institutional change.

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