The drive to make our public spaces more diverse is clearly worthy of support. But aspects of the latest saga leave me uneasyby Julian Baggini / June 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
It wasn’t exactly Baghdad, April 2003, but the toppling of a statue in Bristol this weekend feels like an important symbolic moment. A small group of citizens, cheered on by many more, brought down the statute of a 17th-century slave trader and hurled it into the floating harbour.
A lot has changed since it was erected 125 years ago. No decent Bristolian would possibly agree with the original plaque that called Colston “one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.” But until this week it was still widely acceptable to think his bronze likeness and those of others like him should remain as part of the city’s heritage. No more. Every monument to a shameful past will now have to justify its continued maintenance or make way for something more edifying.
Typically, I find myself unable to back either side in this debate entirely, giving the topplers of Colston one and a half cheers. The full hurrah is for the drive to make our public spaces more diverse in who they celebrate and remember. One of my lockdown walks was a statue tour of Bristol and it is striking that even in this most progressive of cities, effigies of dead, white, privileged men still dominate. The creators of the tour booklet tried not to draw too much attention to this, making sure they included most of the exceptions, namely a farmer and miner, a nameless refugee, Queen Victoria and the 19th-century Indian thinker, reformer and diplomat Raja Ram Mohan Roy.
Caroline Criado Perez’s campaign for a statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square can be credited with putting the issue of who gets memorialised in public on the agenda. In 2018, the database of The Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (PMSA) contained 828 statues in the UK, only 174 of which were of women. What’s more, 66 of these were of allegorical or fictional characters, such as Bristol’s Nine Muses and Minerva, Goddess of Wisdom. Incredibly, by my count, Bristol’s only memorials to people of colour apart from Roy are a Sikh soldiers memorial and a bridge named after a slave, Pero.
Public monuments reflect our civic values and it can’t be right that they are so dominated by…