Throughout history, humans have gained a weird obsession with raising statues. What does this accomplish?

A statue of Edward Colston thrown into the Bristol Harbour amid the Black Lives Matter protests | Source: PA Wire/BBC

As the Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests continue, calls for the defacement of statues and monuments linked with racism and oppression are also growing.

Why are there so many of these statues in the first place?

What erecting a statue can accomplish

In Robin Jeffrey’s article, What the Statues Tell, he identified several reasons why statues and public monuments are built.

  1. The first among these is political manipulation. Statues serve as a mode of communication which aims to win over or maintain the support of a large number of people.
  2. It can be used to project an image. Selecting a particular outstanding citizen, ruler, or member of a group to be depicted as a statue exalts them as legitimate, powerful, or worthy of being idolised.
  3. A statue then can be viewed as a symbolic vessel of principles that an institution shares with or desires to impose to the public.

When statues rise and fall

According to Jeffrey, a society which calls for the erection of a statue is a society that it is experiencing drastic changes.

In India for instance, statues of notable Indian statesmen increased in number after they achieved independence in the 1940s.

The calls for the removal of statues, on the other hand, is indicative of resistance or a shift in power.

Across history, a common pattern observed is the elimination of statues of foreign colonisers once a nation gains its independence. Because they are physically existent, they often become targets of resistance.

Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter protests have accelerated the removal of Confederate monuments to signify this generation’s rejection of the glorification of historical figures who rose to power through slavery and oppression of African-Americans and other people of colour.

The fate of the fallen statues

What to do with statues that are removed is also a topic of huge debate. For one, people can choose to replace it with another statue —the choice of which can take a long time to settle.

Some advocate for the complete removal of the statue. Some argue that doing so is effectively an erasure of a traumatic event. Because of this, some communities choose to leave out the plinths where the statues were once erected as a reminder.

By looking at statues, one would most likely not be able to gain an accurate representation of history. Instead, they will be provided with an angle of history which reflects the motives, interests, and beliefs of those who erected it.

With this, it is important to look at the statues with a critical mind, not allowing oneself to be engulfed in any way by the distorted values these monuments can potentially hold and ensuring that whatever harmful principles they embody will no longer be carried into the present.

While statues may be the vessels of the past, we are living and breathing vessels of principles and values that can change the course of the future ahead of us.

 


Reference

Robin Jeffrey. (1980). What the Statues Tell: The Politics of Choosing Symbols in Trivandrum. Pacific Affairs, 53(3), 484-502. doi:10.2307/2757305

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