The Issue with Statues in the 21st century

In the 21st century nothing is as simple as it used to be. Nowadays it seems every choice, trivial or otherwise, comes with a consequence and it is not uncommon to see a person or business “cancelled” for a decision that seemed frivolous. The internet has broadened our horizons to an almost incomprehensible degree, but it has also left us vulnerable to criticism, often scathing, from perfect strangers. Whilst internet access has made global exploration possible from the comfort of your living-room chair, as time goes by we are slowly allowing ourselves to be censored by the louder voice in the room, removing the grey area, leaving only the black and white, with no room for alternative discourse. Now it goes without saying, sometimes a comment, movement, decision etcetera, is completely reprehensible and without measure. There is no defending hate groups or any of those morally-defunct ideologies. But there is and should always be a safe space in which we question our own beliefs and form the basis of our opinions, without the fear of being raked across the coals, by the entirety of the internet. This I suppose was a long-winded way to introduce the controversial nature of statues in the 21st century. The following is an exploration of just how complicated the task of maintaining or erecting a statue has become in the modern day and what we should be doing to promote equality, protect history and avoid promoting hate-speech and activity. 


Pick an appropriate home

One major issue I have with the vandalising and removal of statues is the erasure of history. George Santayana first uttered the phrase “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it” and it is why places with abhorrent histories, such as Auschwitz, are used to educate people about the danger of racist ideologies. 

When the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was removed and thrown into Bristol Harbour, it felt almost just. The man brought about untold misery and the blood of many was on his hands, however, there is an argument to be made about the desecration of the piece itself. Rather than forcing people to walk past the image of a slave-trader every day, as though it were an honour, the 125 year old statue should have been placed in a museum and used to teach people about the dark history of colonisation and the exploitation of African people and people of colour. It was insulting to give the statue a place of pride, but it is also insulting to have it sit uselessly in a storage facility, when it could be an effective tool in combating hateful behaviour and thoughts. There is nothing to be gained by the desecration of a piece of history and by forgetting about Edward Colston and his despicable actions, history can repeat itself, in a way that none of us want. 


Female Representation

Screenshot 2020 12 08 at 02.30.28 e1607394661250It won’t come as a shock to learn that female representation across the board is poor and borderline laughable. For centuries women have been mocked, ignored and when they discovered or created something special they were largely written out of history. We have seen this with scientist Rosalind Franklin and Irish activist Dr Kathleen Lynn. It stands to reason that the representation of women in statue form is woefully lacking, both in terms of design and the depressingly low bar of actually existing. In regards to design it seems as though sculptors tend to take strange liberties when constructing pieces to honour women, case in point, the statue dedicated to famed 18th century author Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Wollstonecraft is often referred to as the “Mother of Feminism”, with her most popular work arguably “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Much of her work was inspired by her staunch attitude toward female suffrage and her refusal to bow down to societal norms, in regards to both gender and class. So why then in 2020 (of course it would be during this hell year) did artist Maggi Hambling think erecting a minuscule, naked and overall creepy statue would be an appropriate tribute to Wollstonecraft’s memory. The dedication was in the works for over a decade so it is mind-boggling that they would choose a silver, fully naked female form to honour a woman who repeatedly denounced the idea that a woman’s beauty was her only true asset. In some regards it perpetuates the idea that a woman’s body is for public consumption, something not entirely her own. For context you would never see a nude Charles Dickens resting on a plinth in London because his talent speaks for itself, but women are rarely afforded that right. It isn’t enough to be an internationally renowned author, feminist and philosopher, no, you have to be small, silver and sans-clothing too. To keep the public interest. Now, when young girls see the statue, rather than asking who Mary Wollstonecraft was? Or why she is important? They will probably just ask why is she naked? If their parents don’t shield their eyes first. 

That brings us so to the other issue regarding the representation of women and that is the entirely disproportionate manner in which they are recognised. In Dublin City alone there are over 200 public works of art, a meagre seven of those include women,  Constance Markievicz is portrayed twice in that seven, whilst several are fictional characters. The aggravating truth is that there are hundreds of Irish women, past and present, who deserve to be remembered, Kathleen Lynn, Jocelyn Bell Burnell or Mary Robinson, to name three. But Dublin City Council evidently is not interested in this radical approach of equality, especially when you learn certain male figures were granted multiple statues to commemorate their lives. That’s not to say that the men represented have not earned their position, in most cases they did, it is just grossly unfair that many of the women who lived, worked and suffered alongside these men are lost to history based entirely on gender. For all the talk on statues, women are not asking to be placed on a pedestal, rather they want the opportunity to be held in the same regard as their male counterparts. No better or worse. Just equal. 

Where do we set the bar?

Screenshot 2020 12 08 at 02.40.02 e1607395248654

Lastly, I think we need to have a serious look at how low we actually set the bar for what is and is not acceptable when it comes to a statue. The problem arises when you consider just how deeply personal this often is. This entire article was inspired by the announcement of the Margaret Thatcher statue set to be unveiled in her home-town in the new year. My first thoughts were of how polarising a figure she was and still is. Amongst many groups, particularly the Irish, Northern Irish, English industrial workers and coal-miners she was reviled for her harsh, immovable and often deadly policies. I would be lying if I said I would want to walk past a statue of her everyday, however, it does negate my previous point that female leaders are often erased from history. As the Iron Lady, England’s first female PM and the longest serving British PM of the 20th century, you could argue she has earned her place on the podium. Even if you can not stand her policies or anything she stood for. It begs the question, where do we draw the line? For an English coal-miner it may be more difficult to see her face everyday than it would be to see Edward Colstons, so at what point does the desecration, removal or opposition to a statue move beyond personal opinion into action? Appropriately, much like it’s namesake, the statue is already causing a stir, with the controversial decision to pay for the £100,000 monument with tax-payers money, during a pandemic. Let’s all just hope and pray they put some clothes on her.

To wrap it all up in a neat little package is virtually impossible. I had the intention of also talking about other incidents involving high-profile statues, including The Philadelphia Flyers removing Kate Smiths statue, the destruction of Nelson’s Pillar by the IRA and one of the many statues dedicated to Stalin currently standing in Russia. But there is simply too much information. The modern era can be confusing and matters, both big and small, are not always clear.  There is grey in everything and human beings are not born with a fully-formed set of era appropriate ideals. We have to learn and grow, be open to criticism and change, but we need to allow others to experience that for themselves, without condemnation and ridicule. There is a lot to be said for taking the time to do a little research getting to the heart of a matter, rather than being the recipient of an angry key-board warriors sarcasm. Which scenario would alter your opinion?

Laura Varley
Laura Varley

Laura is a graduate of NUIG, writes freelance and is an avid follower of Mayo football, the Arts and current affairs.

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