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  • Writer's picturebenstephenson

// Who we put on pedestals is an ongoing placemaking issue

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol in June was a monumental occasion, sending a clear signal that the object would no longer be tolerated in the city. What does this mean for the way we manage our public spaces? by BEN STEPHENSON

It's been a difficult week for statues. A day after Colston was thrown into Bristol's floating harbour, in what some have been arguing is rather a poetic end for a slaving merchant whose orders ended so many other lives in a similar way, damage was reported to another statue in Bristol, this time of Jamaican Poet, Actor and Playwright Alfred Fagon.

The weekend saw protests in London and Bristol involving far right demonstrators seeking to protect public structures including a statue of Winston Churchill. The #Rhodesmustfall campaign targeting the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College Oxford is gathering pace. Baden Powell has been removed from Poole Harbour, ringed by uniformed Scouts intent on protecting their founder.

In a week that saw seemingly everyone rush to the side of their nearest statue, we saw the power such monuments have as lightning rods, capable of attracting huge strength of feeling.

Monuments have been contentious throughout history. Iconoclasm was recorded as far back as the Bronze Age, reaching its peak in the Byzantine era, and when Roman emperor Caligula fell out of favour, his statues were removed from public view. In modern times, however, we have been more reticent to remove monuments commemorating values we no longer subscribe to.

According to Richard Drayton (2019), an overriding commitment to preserving heritage is used sucessfully to argue in favour of retaining statues of contentious figures, even where they cause public offence. But this, argues Drayton, is a modern trend. Before the 20th Century we were much more capable of re-appraising and recasting our heroes, more able it seems to accept that our history is not set in stone, with new knowledge emerging and other voices heard.

This is important, because many public figures, including Boris Johnson on 12 June, have been quick to suggest that to remove statues now would be 'to lie about our history'. This is a position which serves to reinforce the hegemony, accepting a single narrative about our past, presented by those that benefited from it, and in Colston's case, at the cost of the immense suffering of others.

Drayton writes: "Civic spaces and sculpture were tools through which nineteenth- and twentieth-century elites sought to command the values of the living and the unborn. In their rehearsal of the world view of the winners, they do not just obliterate the losers, they rehearse permanently the violence of domination."


All of this has led to the immediate launch of reviews and inquiries by public authorities, who are now surveying their public realm for examples of egregious public statuary and offensive street names.

This is the right process to enter into, but many are concerned that to do it now is to distract from other immediate concerns of the #blacklivesmatter movement. Some are demanding to know why the decades-old campaigns to remove the stautes of Rhodes and Colston weren't heeded earlier, when removal could have been a cause for civic celebration rather than a boiling over of tensions.

There are also concerns that these reviews will be confused in their haste. The historical and political contexts surrounding public monuments are complicated and they need to be examined in a transparent and public process for decisions to be supportable.

A good example of such a process is the Mayoral Advisory Commission, established by the City of New York in 2018 to examine the issues surrounding a number of New York's public artworks.

One of these, the statue of Dr J. Marion Sims in Central Park was particularly contentious. Known as the 'father of gynaecology', Sims is credited with huge advanges in the treatment of gynaecological conditions including vesicovaginal fistula. It is not in contention that his breakthroughs were made at the cost of many black and hispanic 'subjects' who were operated on without consent or anaesthetic.

The commission, in considering the issues surrounding this monument, took extensive public evidence and used a clear framework to make their determination, focusing on the following five areas, as set out in the report:

1. Reckoning with power to represent history in public

Recognizing that the ability to represent histories in public is powerful; reckoning with inequity and injustice while looking to a just future.

2. Historical understanding

Respect for and commitment to in-depth and nuanced histories, acknowledging multiple perspectives, including histories that previously have not been privileged.

3. Inclusion

Creating conditions for all New Yorkers to feel welcome in New York City’s public spaces and to have a voice in the public processes by which monuments and markers are included in such spaces.

4. Complexity

Acknowledging layered and evolving narratives represented in New York City’s public spaces, with preference for additive, relational, and intersectional approaches over subtractive ones. Monuments and markers have multiple meanings that are difficult to unravel, and it is often impossible to agree on a single meaning.

5. Justice

Recognizing the erasure embedded in the City's collection of monuments and markers; addressing histories of dispossession, enslavement, and discrimination not adequately represented in the current public landscape; and actualizing equity.

The commission decided to remove the Sims statue from its site - a neighbourhood with a high proportion of black and hispanic residents - and commission new artworks which explored the issues raised by the monument.

Other public artworks considered were subject to different fates, including, importantly, the decision to retain some artworks in place, in recognition of the ambiguity surrounding their interpretation, or their educative or heritage value.

Dr Marion J. Sims protests. Copyright, Huffpost

Some of the evidence the Commission heard from is similar to the accounts of the citizens of Bristol, who grew up attending Colston Girls School or from those who passed his statue, standing pride of place in the city centre. Many of these accounts reflect the weight of his presence in their day-to-day lives.

For many of them, the symbolic significance was as much in the contemporary message from the city's administrators who allowed the statue to remain in place as in the historical one, reflecting the atrocities associated with the man. Bristol's first black (and current) Mayor Marvin Rees described the presence of the statue as a 'personal affront'.

With many statues and monuments raised by public subscription, there are often questions over the ownership of the structures, as has been the case with the Colston statue. In any case, the local authority has taken responsibility for it and it will be relocated to a museum, where we are more able to interpret the many meanings of the object in a less celebratory context.

The six foot high letters are now being removed from Colston Hall and Colston Tower, and the man will no longer be celebrated in Bristol. While that memorialisation was inadvertent for many, the message is now clear: those that present the public realm must consider how, whether unthinkingly or through inaction, messages are transmited about who is important and who is not in the civic space.

Crucially, this also means we need a much greater diversity among those that take such decisions about our public space.

Drayton asks of us as place makers: "Are the present and the future contracted in perpetuity with preserving the world view of the past in its pristine form, or might the face of the city not be remade to reflect both the silenced voices of the past and the ideas of the public and the citizenship of the present?"


Ben Stephenson is a placemaking consultant at BAS Consultancy and lives in Bristol.

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