What's the point of public statues?
They are forms of historical storytelling so let's think more carefully about what those stories look like
A statue of the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has recently been erected in Grantham in the UK, the town where she grew up. Thatcher was an incredibly polarising politician who introduced sweeping neoliberal policies in the 1980s. Her supporters say that she transformed the British economy and people’s life chances for the better. Her detractors say that her reforms had devastating consequences for working-class communities up and down the country.
There are a couple of things I think about this statue. There has been a battle over public statues in recent years driven by issues around racism and the historical legacies of slavery. Questions have been raised about whether it is appropriate to have statues commemorating confederate generals in the United States or slave traders in the UK in our public spaces. In Britain the most prominent recent example was the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in June 2020 during a BLM protest march in the wake the murder of George Floyd. That one ended up in Bristol harbour.
Statue of Edward Colston at Bristol harbour in 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Public statues can draw powerful emotional responses. They are one of the most visible – and controversial – forms of historical storytelling. And the stories we tell about history are vital to how we understand our past and create our future.
So, firstly I would question whether it’s a good time to put up a statue of Margaret Thatcher just now given how much strong emotion people still feel against her, even 30 years later. It took less than an hour after this statue went up for an egg to hit her. That’s point number one.
Secondly, through this statue Thatcher has been memorialised in public space in the traditional way that great statesmen have been for centuries. She has been represented in the traditional figurative form, wearing academic robes that resemble the drapery of classical statuary. The Mayor of Grantham has suggested that the statue should enable discussion of her historical legacy. In my opinion the form of this statue doesn’t aid constructive dialogue but rather commemorates and lauds her legacy.
Given that she draws strong emotions on both sides, shouldn’t we harness the incredible talent of our contemporary artists to create a sculpture that acknowledges differences in opinions, that works to dispel some of those political tensions, and that helps to build bridges?
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