Defacement, toppling and social activism: why are statues so important to us?

Written by Marta Pozzi.
Edited by Francesca Lombardo.

On Tuesday 10th November, the first and long-overdue statue celebrating famous feminist philosopher and educator, Mary Wollstonecraft, was unveiled in Newington Green, North London. The ceremony took place after a ten-year-long fundraising campaign by the residents to raise £143,000 to pay British artist Maggi Hambling. The result, however, instantly sparked outrage and a massive social media backlash. The reason for this was that Hambling decided not to portray Wollstonecraft herself, but a naked silver figurine emerging from a mingle of female bodies in her stead. 

Critics claim that this kind of portrayal is offensive to the philosopher – known as the “mother of feminism” – and that Wollstonecraft would not have felt honoured by such representation, which does not focus on the many merits and achievements of her life. The disappointed supporters of the project have also brought attention to the fact that historical female figures suffer an outrageous lack of representation. When it comes to public statues in the UK,  less than 3% of them represent and celebrate non-royal women. One critic commented on this, stating that “we’ve celebrated so few women from the past that the temptation is to attempt [to represent] all of womanhood, which is never an issue when it’s a male statue”; referring to Hambling’s attempt to have this statue depict an everywoman and the collective female struggle to birth feminism.

The British sculptor, who is no stranger to controversy regarding her work, defended her artistic freedom and claimed that the statue was not of Mary Wollstonecraft, but for her.

This kind of backlash over public celebrations of historical figures is not new this year. During the Black Lives Matter protests that took place over the summer following the murder of George Floyd by US police officers, many statues and plaques which represented personalities connected with slave-trade, exploitation or even genocide both in the UK and the US have been condemned. Some such statues have been defaced, decapitated or altogether toppled, as in the case of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, which was then powerfully replaced by a new statue representing Jen Reid, one of the protesters. Ongoing debate surrounds other examples of figures who possess a questionable right to stand on such plinths. These include Christopher Columbus, Cecil Rhodes (whose statues prompted the 2015 “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign) or King Leopold of Belgium, who was responsible for genocide in Congo, to name a few. There is even a website called “Topple the Racists” that shows a “crowdsourced map of the UK statues and monuments that celebrate slavery and racism” where you can track which statues have been removed and which are still standing.

Despite how one may feel about removing statues of these historical personalities, I think these different examples share the common thread of a wide-spread concern for what it is considered acceptable for public display and celebration. The reason that social activism is often criticising such statues or monuments is that they are in a public space – as opposed to those in a museum – available for all to see. These statues are not simply representative of history, at least not the unbiased and uncensored history that exists in museums, where all the relevant contextual information given to the public. They also stand for the society that installs them as well as its values. For so many people, this is an incredibly important and sensitive topic as many do not wish for themselves, their beliefs or their ideas, to be misrepresented in this way. In democratic countries, such as the UK and the US, where notions racism, violence and inequality of any kind are rejected, there is no place for these representations in our public squares, parks and streets. To allow these statues to stand as they do alongside these beliefs is somewhat of a paradox.

Photo by Ali Nuredini on Unsplash

Besides, these statues also serve an educational purpose.  Often, they are looked up to by younger people because of their position, which is literally on a pedestal. They should be examples of what our society values and rewards, and should represent exceptional people and their actions. This move, in my opinion, does not mean that the bad bits of history will be obliterated or forgotten, simply that they should occupy another space.

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