Continuing the Conversation: Statues, Monuments and Difficult Histories

The following commentary originally appeared in ICOM UK weekly news

The tragic events of Charlottesville, instigated by the planned removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, highlights the important role we as museums and heritage professionals play in preserving, interpreting and displaying public history. Myself and Edmund Connolly, Head of Communications for ICOM UK, thought it might be useful to highlight some of the conversations going on around the issue.

First, it is important to understand that the removal of statues and monuments is also a live issue for the UK. Earlier this month, Patrick Harvie (Scottish Green Party) called for the removal of statues marking the Scottish slave trade.  A statue of slavery supporter Henry Dundas, who became Lord Melville, stands in Edinburgh city centre. The Welsh community has objected to the Iron Ring sculpture at Flint Castle because it celebrates the oppression of the Welsh by the English when Richard II surrendered the crown to Henry IV.

Opinions as to how to deal with such statues and monuments vary greatly. Within the political realm, many elected officials have been quick to take a stand, pledging either to remove offensive statues and monuments (sometimes in the middle of the night) or protect them, likening removal of monuments to ISIS iconoclasm and making the slippery slope argument: Do we remove all statues and monuments that can be connected to a shameful chapter in history?

Many arts, museums and heritage professionals have espoused a nuanced approach to the issue. Dr. Lonnie Bunch, Co-chair of ICOM USA and Founding Director Of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, proposes that removed statues be collected and “grouped together and contextualized, so people understand what they stood for.” Joshua David, President and Chief Executive of the World Monuments Fund, echoed this sentiment, arguing that when statues are on pedestals, they are in a position of worship rather than critical analysis.

An example of this approach is Budapest’s Memento Park, which presents statues of Communist dictators that were removed from the streets of the city. According to the Park’s architect Ákos Eleőd:  “This park is about dictatorship. And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built up, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

A number of arts professionals have pointed out that statues and monuments are artworks and that aesthetic elements and artistic intent should be considered as part of the conversation. Hollis Robbins, a humanities professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Peabody Institute compares our treatment of statues and monuments to other art forms: “Do we teach T. S. Eliot, who was anti-Semitic, or the films of Roman Polanski, who was charged with rape?”

In his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the history of the civil rights era statue Foot Soldier of Birmingham. The statue is based on a newspaper photo of a Black child being attacked by a vicious police dog in the wake of desegregation. However, Gladwell found that while the work was inspired by the photo, the statue was not based on the facts of the news event but a creative re-imagining by the artist that encapsulated the experience of Black people at the time. I highly recommend this podcast to anyone interested in the process of commissioning and producing public statues.

Put quite simply, this is an ever growing thorny issue that deserves careful consideration. We look forward to continuing the conversation about this important issue with you in the future.

 

Tonya Nelson

Chair, ICOM UK

 

Edmund Connolly

Head of Communications, ICOM UK

 

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