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Some thoughts on history, memory and the removal of public statues – and where we might go from here. [THREAD]
1. Public statues are not politically neutral. They are statements about who and what we honour as a society. The decision to erect (or maintain) them is an exercise of power over the public realm. As such, it carries into one age the values and power structures of another.
2. Statues inhabit the present, not the past, and are subject to its jurisdiction. Our relationship with the past - and the things we choose to honour - can change over time. It is not an offence against history to reflect those changes in what we commemorate in our public spaces
3. To remove a statue is not to "erase history". On the contrary, statues themselves can be acts of historical erasure. The Colston Statue, for example, did not mention his role in the slave trade. It constructed a history from which slavery was written out and cast it in bronze.
4. Colston may not have been honoured *because* he was a slave trader. But this was not thought important enough to *disbar* him from honour, or even to mention on the commemorative plaque. His statue served not to memorialise the past but to edit and curate it.
5. Good history means challenging silences and evasions, not encasing them in bronze. For decades, campaigners in Bristol have fought to write the history of slavery back into their public monuments: not to suppress the past, but to give a more full and accurate representation.
6. Time and again, campaigners proposed new plaques, or contextual information, or artwork that would acknowledge the history of slavery. They sought compromise & consensus through constitutional channels. Yet time & again, those channels were blocked by obfuscation and inertia.
7. I would rather the statue had come down through constitutional action. The fate of public statues should not depend on whether police or protestors can muster bigger numbers. But much of the blame lies with those who for years blocked every constitutional avenue for change.
8. Debate around public statues is not going to go away. Nor should it, for it raises profound questions about our values & the ownership of public space. So councils need to establish good-faith processes in which debate can happen - and from which meaningful change can emerge.
9. Done well, the result could be a richer and closer relationship with our civic history, finding new stories & figures to celebrate. The history we teach in schools & universities has expanded dramatically in recent decades; the history we celebrate in public could do the same.
10. But if change is rebuffed as sacrilege - if we treat statues as holy mysteries, beyond the reach of unclean hands - we will turn our common spaces into a site of holy war. Our past, as well as our present, deserves much better. [ENDS]
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