Historic England: Panel Discussion 'Remove or Revere?'

Remove or Revere? The Battle Over Statues, Heritage and History

The Historic England panel discussion ‘Remove or Revere? The Battle Over Statues, Heritage and History’ was held at the Emmanuel Centre, London on 14 May. It was chaired by Guardian columnist and author, Jonathan Freedland, who was joined by panellists David Olusoga, Afua Hirsch, Peter Frankopan and Tiffany Jenkins. The main questions of the evening were: Are those calling for the removal of controversial statues seeking to right an historical injustice or are they trying to erase history? And are those who object to removing memorials defending the indefensible or are they conserving historical reality, however unpalatable that may be?

This discussion was raised in the context of the recent ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the top register of the Rhodes Building at Oriel College, Oxford (fig.1), and the protests in Charlottesville in the United States surrounding the removal of the statue of the confederate soldier, Robert E. Lee (fig.2). Much of the debate was concentrated on the issue of slavery, and how it is addressed, or ignored, in our schools and museums. With only one art historian, Tiffany Jenkins on the panel, who refused to acknowledge the symbolic or political potential of statues, statuary as an art form was woefully ignored. Statues were lambasted by the panel as ‘unimportant’, ‘naff’ and ‘grey’ – why, then, are their futures up for debate? 

David Olusoga, historian, writer, broadcaster and recent co-presenter on the BBC series ‘Civilisations’, made an impassioned argument that statuary is a dead form of memorialisation, and that the Fourth Plinth is the only innovative form that is able to keep up with the fast pace of our changing society. He claimed that controversial statues should be taken out of the public arena where they are celebrated and instead be transferred to museums, where they can be questioned, challenged, and learned from. In relation to the Charlottesville protests, Olusoga argued that we presume that Civil War statues are old, but some of these statues are not as old as those defending them. Many of the statues were put up in a psychological battle to try to keep black Southern communities in their place in 1919 because, at that time, there was a moment of hope for black rights and black voting rights, and similar optimism again in the 60s with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

The writer and broadcaster, Afua Hirsch, developed this argument, questioning why there is no Museum of Empire when the Empire is such an important part of our history. This, Hirsch argued, would be the perfect place to keep these controversial statues and use them to improve our historical education. She went on to call for more education about history that we choose to forget and a greater understanding of the reasons why we have chosen to disassociate ourselves and forget. Hirsch was the best received of all the panellists, with the loudest applause for her question: How can it be logical to teach the abolishment of slavery but not the 400 years of slavery before, including our participation in it? More British students learn about the history of American Civil Rights than the involvement of the British in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The weight of this point is unquestionable, however, its reception highlights the failure of the evening to address sculptural issues in an artistic context as well as an historical one.

Within the panel, Tiffany Jenkins, a writer and sociologist with a BA in Art History, was certainly the most controversial speaker, rejecting the arrangement of public spaces according to the ‘emotions’ of the minority, and even contesting the call to improve the education of problematic histories and figures. Whilst all of the panel agreed that education is key in the improvement of our understanding of our past, Jenkins disagreed with the proposal of an institutional context, highlighting the Memento Park in Budapest as a more effective example, although as she acknowledged, these statues were moved at the downfall of Communist Hungary, rather than 150 years later (fig.3). Tiffany Jenkins raised the important point that moving a statue into a museum is just relocating the debate and, furthermore, places them in institutions often steeped in colonial connotations. Jenkins argued that statues should be kept in the public sphere, with the public able to react to them as they wish. Although there is credence to this point, Jenkins fell short of accepting the public’s reactions to be upset, offended or angry. Rather, she argued that there is an inhibiting climate of moralising history that encourages people to adopt a ‘victim identity’, where to be offended is to achieve something. She worried that to organise public space according to the feelings of the offended would ‘weaponise’ the debate, contradicting her later point that statues are not dangerous. 

Peter Frankopan, historian and author of the acclaimed The Silk Roads, maintained that a ‘lump of rock’, whilst highly symbolic, will not affect these complex issues. Rather, he argued, there are more important areas to focus on. He stated that British education is pitifully limited when it comes to history, and if a book is on anything other than Henry VIII or Churchill it will not sell. This argument was backed by Hirsch, who stated that there are 50 new TV shows a year on World War Two, because we were victorious. Frankopan insisted that the only way forward is for there to be more funding for history, and for us, as a nation, to stop this ‘incessant navel-gazing’ and to learn about others. He conceded that statues can be a point of education, but are much less useful than other means in explaining what the past meant and what we can do about it. We have to make the effort to educate ourselves, attend lectures and debates.

Whilst the discussion raised interesting points about our education and historical amnesia, it also produced some rather scathing remarks about the relevance of statues, in particular their artistic value. David Olusoga claimed that ‘statues, for the most part, don’t matter’, calling them grey, boring and stating that ‘almost all of them are terrible works of art’. There was no effort to discuss how to address this problem for the commissioning of future statues. Peter Frankopan argued that the job of a statue is eventually to fall; initially it is put up to commemorate someone, but with time it will no longer exist. He went on to claim that statues are just ‘a piece of lead or copper or bronze that somebody paid for and nobody bothers looking at’ until the figure rises to prominence in the context of a larger debate. In a contradiction of this, Frankopan also supported the idea of a national memorial to slaves and questioned why there hasn’t already been one.

The debate ended in a Q&A with the audience, who asked questions such as ‘how does relocating statues to colonial institutions such as museums change anything?’, ‘why isn’t there a memorial to slaves?’, and ‘where do you stop?’. Again, Hirsch was the more impressive of the panellists in her response, stating that ‘slavery was a manifestation of an ideology of white supremacy that has not gone away’, and that this is the crucial problem. Hirsch argued that the fact that we have not recovered from these traumas is the reason that we must provide an educational context for our controversial figurative statues.

Jenkins further explained her argument that statues are not dangerous in themselves and that we should de-politicise the argument by addressing the failure to acknowledge that they have been established, or since used, as political messages. As Olusoga countered by questioning how easy it would be to de-politicise a statue that was initially created in order to intimidate or oppress?

To conclude, this was an illuminating debate about our historic legacy in which most of the panellists agreed that a broader and better-funded education would be the best answer. There is a need to have an honest debate about our contentious history, and to admit that which we would rather deny, but the question of our sculptural heritage is one that still has not been adequately discussed.

Main image: István Kiss (1927-1997), Republic of Councils Monument, 1969, Memento Park, Budapest (photo: Creative Commons)

Aurora Corio