Contentious Statues: Skeletons in Cupboards
‘Having a skeleton in the cupboard,’, implies having an embarrassing or unpleasant secret about something that happened in the past. It is an excellent metaphor to highlight a real concern. In this case, the skeletons represent the contentious statues we have in our cities. The cupboard represents the museums that will end up housing them. Bristol City Council has already removed the statue of Edward Colston and plans to reinstall it as a museum exhibit.
Moving them to a museum is a flawed strategy for several reasons.
We are the product of our history (good and bad), therefore, there are no long-term social benefits achieved in hiding our misdemeanours in museums. Banishing them to some sort of cultural space amounts to orchestrated social amnesia that gives little credence to the statue’s political and cultural importance.
They should stay where they are, publicly accountable for what and who they represent. They should stand as reminders of prejudice and ignorance, past wrongs and in evidence of our slow social advancement and heartfelt ambitions.
As a museums display item, these statues will become yet another curated and narrated set of objects, their importance translated, their potential reduced to that of a cultivated cultural artefacts, which are conveniently edited into summarised and accessible observations of a collective trauma. Therefore, silencing the victims to a point where they (and other visitors) require a museum professional to narrate their suffering and advocate their claims.
Museums have long evolved from collections of cultural artefacts. They are businesses, corporations with agenda, political bias, and targeted audiences. They represent a ‘Cosmopolitan mode of remembrance’ which tend to ignore current and legitimate differences of social and political interests, their on-brand narrations appear to leave vital political questions unanswered for racists and fundamentalists to exploit.
There are more reasons against the incarceration of these statues. However, the key issue is that removing them from the public and everyday lives seems counterintuitive. Currently most statues are encountered by thousands of people daily, seen whilst on their way to the shops, meeting friends, taking exercise, going to work, or coming home from school etc. The statues were purposely positioned outside public transport buildings, next to libraries, government buildings and in parks as symbols of a national power and elitism. What better way of promoting and ensuring lessons are learnt and discussed than to leave them where they stand. Monumental moments of interaction and relief in places where all citizens (public, politician or even royalty) can pass by, recognize, and acknowledge their meaning. Alternatively, they can be placed in a controlled (9 am-5 pm) environment, narrated, maintained, and protected by paid museum staff, meaning, that to see them, you must pay. Thus, reaffirming their status and social hierarchy without truly addressing the historical and culturally awkward truths.
What can we do instead?
Some might argue to remove them altogether, others might suggest breaking them down into parts and reusing the material to build another sculpture in its place. Some have already argued to reword their plaques and inscriptions, whilst others have suggested leaving them to decay and ruin, letting time and the elements erode them physically and symbolically. All of these have their merits and I believe each statue should be addressed individuality, their treatment depending on their past, cultural significance and location.
However, I would advocate for another remedy, one of intervention. In other words, to adapt the statue, add another layer to it so that a narrative of change can be read. By simply adding an element recognisably different to that of its host would signify universal recognition and a rereading of its meaning.
Think perhaps of the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold. Kintsugi was developed on the idea that in embracing flaws and imperfections, you can create an even stronger, more beautiful piece of art.
Modern interventions in historic buildings & augmentation, i.e. the process of increasing the size, value, or quality of something by adding to it.
The controversial Charging bull and fearless Girl Statues - The bronze ponytailed girl standing with hands-on-hips was installed in March 2017 opposite the longstanding bull sculpture at the bottom end of Broadway in Manhattan. By adding the statue named Fearless Girl, the artist completely changed the meaning of the bull, changing from a financial power symbol to becoming the fall guy in a narrative about the power of women in leadership.
INTERVENTION Fearless Girl