A Statue is an “Edit”
“We cannot now try to edit or censor our past. We cannot pretend to have a different history. The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong. But those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.” — Boris Johnson, Twitter, (June 12th, 2020)
A statue is a public celebration — of a life or lives. It is the most basic unit of public art.
The erecting of a statue is an “edit” of “our past” — the selection of a life, lives or event over all others. To remove a statue is therefore to remove an edit of history — not history itself. If one such edit of history becomes abhorrent it is right for a society to challenge its public presentation. The public realm as a result may be less exclusive in what and who it represents.
Public art today seeks to make the public realm more inclusive. It tries in earnest to widen what is included within the edit of history and which human lives are celebrated. It’s an unending, but important task.
Ironically, the removal of a statue in the case of Edward Colston — of public art, has made the public realm of Bristol (and other cities) more representative of its public, than any new work of art could. A public realm that must no longer “pretend to have a different history”.
Its removal has also given us our first national lesson in “The History of the British Empire”. Polling is not required to know that the majority of us learnt more about Britain’s role in slavery — let alone Edward Colston’s — in the past week than in our entire school education. Statues are not, and never have been, devised as public history lessons — for current or future generations. The debates surrounding their removal, or potential removal, however, are.
Any statues removed will end up in museums. There is only one museum in Britain dedicated solely to Britain’s role in slavery — in Liverpool. More museums of this kind are needed so that all school children can visit one — just as German students confront evidence of their history as part of their schooling. The forceful pulling down of Edward Colston’s statue is already leading to calls for new museums of this kind. An outcome, we can all agree, will enrich “the education of generations to come”.
No museum can fill-in for a school subject, text book or teacher. To ensure we no longer “lie about our history” and teach every future generation “about our past” then it is the school curriculum that we must ultimately revise. So that no future generation could end up sharing its public space with a monument to a life that destroyed so many others.