Last edited 01 Jan 2023

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Controversial statues

Bomber harris statue.jpg

The controversial statue of Sir Arthur Harris was given a 24-hour guard in its early months to deter vandalism.

Illustration by Rob Cowan.

The question of what to do with statues and memorials to people or events that some people no longer think it appropriate to celebrate has become a tricky political issue.

There are, perhaps, two ways of thinking about history and statues. Dynamic history, which helps us to understand; and static history, which falsifies. We can identify seven principles of each.

Principles of dynamic history

  1. History is made up of accepted judgments, which change through time in the light of new research and changing values.
  2. History is a continuous process of interpreting the past through the eyes of the present.
  3. Understanding the present depends on understanding the past.
  4. There is no core of historical facts that exists independently of interpretation by historians.
  5. People who are aware and thoughtful (sometimes described as ‘woke’) can help us to understand the past.
  6. History can help us to understand old buildings and artefacts in new ways. Building conservationists and historians can communicate that understanding by interpreting those buildings and artefacts to the public.
  7. In particular, history can help us understand historic statues in new ways. Historians can communicate that understanding by interpreting those statues to the public. In some cases, unnecessary offence can be avoided either by relocating a statue to a place where it can be seen and understood (rather than revered), or by putting it into storage.

Principles of static history

  1. History is made up of facts, which are unchanging and reflect unchanging values.
  2. History is what has been established by past historians.
  3. Understanding the present depends on an unchanging view of the past.
  4. There is a core of historical facts that exists independently of interpretation by historians.
  5. People who are ‘woke’ (supposing themselves to be aware and thoughtful) usually have a secret political agenda that they are trying to impose on everyone else.
  6. History tells us what to value in an old building or artefact. Building conservationists and historians should communicate that generally unchanging story to the public.
  7. Historic statues represent historical facts. Historians should communicate those facts as they were understood by the people who erected the statues, occasionally adding some explanation reflecting current thinking. Relocating statues falsifies history, causing distress to people who fear change to their longstanding, comforting view of the world. Provoking such fears can be an effective means of attracting political support from such people.

A dynamic approach to history helps us to think about the past and respond creatively. In relation to statues and other memorials, it enables us to think about them in relation to our changing values; to our changing knowledge and understanding of the lives of the people portrayed; to the differing audiences for the statues; and to the role that the statue or memorial is, or was, intended to play.

Major UK cities, including London, Bristol, Manchester, Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds, are undertaking reviews of their statues, as is the Welsh Government. In London, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, has established the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm ‘to review and access public tributes including statues and other landmarks’. London’s statues, plaques and street names do not reflect the city’s stories. The commission will focus on increasing representation in its public spaces among Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, women, the LGBTQ+ community and disability groups.

A strong criticism of taking down statues came in 2020 when the then culture secretary Oliver Dowden highlighted the issue as part of what he called the ‘war on woke’ (‘woke’ is generally accepted as meaning an awareness of social injustice). ‘Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong,’ Dowden wrote in a letter to DCMS arm’s-length bodies to outline the government’s position on contested heritage (with a strong hint that their funding might depend on them toeing the line). ‘Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive… but they play an important role in teaching us about our past.’ Dowden explained: ‘Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them.’

The argument that no statue should ever be removed cannot be sustained. People are not expected to live with statues of Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein, for example. There used to be several statues of the entertainer and broadcaster Jimmy Savile in public places. They were all removed when his sex crimes were exposed. A man who had been a popular figure was now universally reviled. He was a part of the nation’s cultural history but in the light of new information that history is no longer celebrated.

Not if, but when and how

So the question is not whether statues should ever be removed, but how such decisions are made. In making those decisions, it will help to know why the memorials were erected; what effect they were meant to have; and what effect they do have. In 2020 the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the USA issued a statement on the controversial issue of Confederate monuments. ‘The [trust] has previously issued statements about the history and treatment of Confederate monuments, emphasizing that, although some were erected… for reasons of memorialization, most Confederate monuments were intended to serve as a celebration of Lost Cause mythology and to advance the ideas of white supremacy,’ it wrote. ‘Many of them still stand as symbols of those ideologies and sometimes serve as rallying points for bigotry and hate today. To many African Americans, they continue to serve as constant and painful reminders that racism is embedded in American society.’ The trust pointed out that the monuments’ history need not end with their removal: it supports their relocation to museums or other places where they may be preserved so that their history can be recognised and interpreted.

New statues can be controversial as well. The National Windrush Monument was unveiled at London’s Waterloo Station earlier this year. The bronze statue of three figures, created by the Jamaican artist Basil Watson, was funded by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. It has been widely welcomed as a celebration of the lives, contribution and legacy of those who came to the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. Some people, though, have found the monument offensive. The equality and human rights campaigner Gus John has condemned ‘the entire Windrush construct’ as a sham. While acknowledging the statue as a work of art, John described it as ‘monument to unforgivable political illiteracy and an entrenched colonial mindset… to state racism, hypocrisy and hubris.’

John’s view was that the monument was intended to create a narrative that would erase much of the negative experience of those immigrants and the memory of the Windrush scandal. That scandal was a consequence of the Hostile Environments policy implemented primarily by the Immigration Acts 2014 and 2016, under which members of the ‘Windrush generation’ were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, and in at least 83 cases wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office.

Earlier this year Jesus College Cambridge was refused its application to remove a memorial plaque to its benefactor Tobias Rustat (1608–1694), prominently sited on the west wall of the Grade I-listed college chapel. The college argued that, because Rustat was involved in the slave trade, the memorial was having a negative impact on the mission and ministry of the church. It proposed moving the plaque to another site in the college. A consistory court – an ecclesiastical body dealing with matters of law relating to the church – refused the application by Jesus College to the diocese of Ely to move it. The court found that widespread opposition to the memorial was based on ‘a false narrative’ about the scale of the financial rewards Tobias Rustat gained from slavery. The removal of the memorial would cause ‘considerable or notable harm to the significance of the chapel as a building of special architectural or historic interest’.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, had come out in support of the college’s attempt to move the memorial, asking: ‘Why is it so much agony to remove a memorial to slavery?’ The answer is because the issues around the removal of statues and other memorials are often complex. That complexity is reflected in the Church of England’s own guidance on contested heritage. The guidance is presented as a questionnaire which, when completed, is meant to serve as a record of a process towards reaching a proposal for action. ‘For the process to be valid,’ the guidance states, ‘it should be a collective activity in which the church community and other interested parties can participate and exchange views. Consultation, crucially with the communities most affected, is key.’

The church’s guidance suggests that the decision-making process should include questions such as: What makes the object problematic or contested today? How does the presence and/ or presentation of the object affect the ability of the church to be a place open to all as a centre of local worship and mission and/or complementary uses such as charitable works, community activities, commercial activity, or pilgrimage? How does the object refer or respond to its problematic nature or contested origin?

As the air marshal leading RAF Bomber Command in the second world war, Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (1892–1984) was at the centre of controversies, then and since, about the policy that he implemented of bombing German cities to instil terror into their populations, rather than with purely military or strategic objectives. That made the decision to erect a memorial to him a controversial one. The statue, designed by Faith Winter and erected in 1992, stands outside St Clement Danes Church in London. It may be that the controversy surrounding Harris’s reputation was one of the reasons for the statue being created. Many survivors of Bomber Command and the families of members and former members felt that their contribution was regarded as tarnished. A statue would help them hold their heads high.

The idea of erecting a statue of Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965) in London’s Parliament Square was Churchill’s himself. When reviewing plans for the square’s redevelopment in the 1950s, he helpfully indicated the prime location for his monument. The statue was erected in 1973, after his death. Churchill is perhaps a more controversial figure than he was then, and the stature and his plinth have been vandalised several times. Nowadays the work is covered by a large timber structure whenever a particular risk is foreseen.

Probably most statues represent people who are controversial. For some people, a particular statue will add interest or delight to a place. For others that same statue may cause real offence. Who responds in what way will change over time.

In the UK one of the most controversial statues has been that in Bristol of the slave-trader and philanthropist Edward Colston (1636–1721), which in 2020 was pulled down from its plinth, daubed with paint and thrown into Bristol Harbour. The protest coincided with many other instances of statue-toppling around the world in response to the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis, USA.

For several years previously Bristol City Council, owner of the Grade II listed statue, had been trying to come up with a form of words for an explanatory plaque that would be widely acceptable. At one stage it got as far as casting the plaque but it was never installed. The protesters lost patience and took direct action. Four of them were prosecuted for causing criminal damage but the jury acquitted them, to the dismay of Boris Johnson’s government. The statue was recovered from the harbour and has since been exhibited in a gallery, lying down, somewhat damaged and still bearing its graffiti. This seems to be its likely long-term fate. The Colston statue was erected, not by his friends, but in 1895, 174 years after its subject’s death. It has been suggested that it was a riposte to the erection in the previous year of a statue to the statesman, philosopher and Edmund Burke (1729–1797), MP for Bristol, who had been a noted opponent of the slave trade.

The UK government has since introduced legislation to ensure that monuments and plaques are explained in situ rather than removed. Removal of any historic statue, whether listed or not, now needs full planning permission. If a council intends to grant permission for removing a particular statue and Historic England objects, the levelling-up secretary will be notified so that he or she can make the final decision.

Some of the issues were highlighted by an appeal decision that blocked the erection of a new statue on the now-vacant Colston plinth. A statue of protester Jen Reid, titled ‘A Surge of Power’, had been placed on the plinth by Black Lives Matter activists, before being immediately removed by Bristol City Council. An independent planner, Gary Rice, subsequently applied for temporary planning and listed building consent for the statue of Reid to be placed on the plinth for two years. In order to avoid further trouble, the council refused to determine the applications, so Rice appealed against the non-determination. The planning inspector found that the proposal would fail to preserve the plinth’s special architectural and historic interest, and that there was little to substantiate Rice’s contention that the new statue would make the public realm more inclusive and encourage community cohesion. The process seemed to show how little the government’s interventions have done to help facilitate the necessary mediation in ways that are fair, inclusive, participative and transparent. After years of campaigning by Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement, an independent commission into Oriel College’s statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes voted earlier this year to remove it. The college has refused to do so, on the grounds that the legal and planning processes would be costly in the light of the government’s retainand-explain policy.

What are statues for? To remind people of whoever is represented, presumably. But those who remember them fondly will not need reminding; those who resent them will not want to be reminded; and the rest may have no interest in who the statue represents. Three of the plinths in London’s Trafalgar Square are occupied by statues, and for many years one had been left vacant. A government advisory group, convened in 1999, decided that the fourth plinth should be occupied by a piece of new sculpture, on a rotating basis. The journalist Gary Younge, at one time chair of the committee that chose the artworks, was often asked to devote the fourth plinth permanently to a particular famous person. He always gave the same response: if you can name those who occupy the other three plinths, we will consider giving you the fourth. Almost always they could not name a single one. Younge’s somewhat eccentric conclusion is that statues are futile: they should all be taken down, and no new ones be erected.

The reality is that many statues and other memorials have evidential, historical, aesthetic or communal value; and people will continue to create artefacts and name places in celebration of people and events whose memories they want to share. Many of those people and events will be to some degree controversial. Deciding how to create, conserve, record, describe, relocate or rename those memorials is a complex process in a democracy, and so it should be. It is the essence of dynamic history.

This article originally appeared as ‘Troublesome statues’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 173, published in September 2022. It was written by Rob Cowan, editor of Context, and author of Essential Urban Design and The Dictionary of Urbanism.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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