As an ex-scholar of antiquity with a PhD in Roman archaeology I want to say that pulling down statues is part of human tradition in Europe and North Africa, and fulfills an important role in human society.
Statues, plaques, epigraphy (and civic buildings) are typically power being exercised or placated. What do we do when we, as a society, realise that power transgresses in a way beyond that which we are (now) willing to tolerate? In the Roman frame, how do we reclaim or repair some of the honour of our city? We tear down statues. Or we break their faces, disfigure them, chisel off their words and delete their names. In the most extreme cases, we condemn them to damnatio memoriae – their memory is damned, and their works destroyed. The original cancel culture. It’s a public performance, enacted by the people typically with the direction by, or tacit permission from power. It provides some restitution to the wronged, some cleansing to society, and a reaffirmation of what society will and will not tolerate.
In a modern framing removing statues will never remove knowledge of the existence of these people and their works. But if we look at this practice in the last we can see that when we remove their names and faces from our cities we are removing the tacit approval of them. We are saying that people like that don’t belong in our public lives. They aren’t what we as a society (a City as the Romans might have framed it) accept, approve of, or are willing to tolerate. We are saying – they were wrong, we don’t accept them as one of us. We are so ashamed of them that we cast them out of us.
People worry that if these statues are gone then people will forget the things they did. Well, let them be forgotten – as individuals. Statues don’t educate people. People educate people – let’s not pass off the responsibility to tackling the racist, murderous origins of our City to an inanimate object. And honestly, having taught undergraduates, statues are pretty damn low on the list of material culture I’d use to teach the history slave trade.
People want to put that statue in a museum. God no. Museums are direct descendants of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ of the rich white man – their original purpose was to collect, classify and objectify the Other. To wield power – either to empower ourselves by borrowing from glorious past or to disempower the unknown and the different by conflating it with the ‘savage’ past. Many big museums in England would struggle to name a Black member of staff who isn’t a security person. Many English museums own material culture, or human bodies, stolen from groups of people. Museums need to be decolonised and to do anti-racism work. There are going to be few museums who can take this statue and not be entrapped by a toxic mix of their own culture and this situation.
Leave it in the water. If it has to go back, smash its face in and chisel off the name and the appellations. Let him be damned to memory – and then let’s take responsibility for teaching ourselves our City’s part in this murderous history.
Edit – if you’re thinking, okay, but why are the Romans relevant here? That’s a fair question. It’s not just because I am a history nerd. It’s relevant in part because so much of elite English history can be seen as an attempt to co-opt the history of the Roman empire to contextualise and justify British Imperialism. The statue guy belongs to that group. Also, I wanted to offer a way of describing what has happened that is based on a western European historical framework that many of us learnt about as young children. Many people in England see Roman culture as a part of their personal, social and cultural history, and see ancient Romans as distantly and academically their ancestors. If so, this is how your ancestors addressed these problems.