It has taken 200 years for one of the pioneers of feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft, to be honoured with a statue. Unfortunately, what renowned sculptor, Maggi Hambling, has created is a clichéd image. Would a celebrated male writer ever be portrayed nude? Yet here is Wollstonecraft depicted as a stereotype of female iconography in art. Statues of men outnumber women by 10 to 1 in London and, following months of debate about which historical figures deserve to be honoured, it is disappointing that such an important figure as Wollstonecraft has been commemorated in this way.
Renewed calls to take down public monuments celebrating people and events now considered offensive have become a key part of anti-racism protests taking place around the world, but the removal of statues of slave traders is sparking concerns that important lessons from history might be swept under the carpet. Simplistic expressions of mob justice do no good and only serve to further polarise opinion, but we should avoid any knee-jerk reactions. Each statue will have to be reviewed independently because the backgrounds and contexts are not the same. Edward Colston, for example, whose statue was pulled down, was a Victorian re-invention. His statue was erected in Bristol 170 years after his death, representing the economic, social and political perspectives of the businessmen of the city at that time. There have been calls for the removal of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, because he was opposed to the abolition of slavery, yet this is one of the few monuments to portray black seamen, many of whom served in Nelson’s navy.
The measured response of Sir Geoff Palmer, an emeritus professor of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and Scotland's first black professor, is one that many could heed. He does not support removing statues relating to slavery, believing that they are part of black history and stresses the importance of facing up to the past and better educating the public about it. He has been a key participant in the proposal to amend a plaque on a controversial monument of Scottish politician Henry Dundas to explain that he was "instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade". Palmer told BBC Scotland that the new plaque would give the public the opportunity to see and "actually read the evil that this man has done. If we take the statue down, this will not be known". He said that adding clarifications to these monuments, rather than pulling them down altogether, would avoid erasing history: “My view is you remove the evidence, you remove the deed”.
How we view the past changes from generation to generation, with each viewing its past differently. History is a continuing conversation with and about the past. Looking again means re-evaluating, but re-evaluation is not just the process of knocking the great off their perches, but recognising the value of those who have been overlooked. As retired bishop, Richard Harries, put it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme’s “Thought for the day” slot (12 June): “If history is a continuing re-evaluation of the past, then perhaps the full story can only be told when mankind no longer exists”. That’s a very long way off...
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture