The problem with statues is that they’re set in stone. I say that only half-jokingly: one of the things that is incongruous about our political debate over statues is that over the course of my lifetime, every single one of London’s major art galleries has had its works rehung and reordered to better show off its collections and to showcase new work. In that time, the nation’s public statues and sculpted art have remained largely unchanged. We expectat that other artwork changes all the time, yet our public conversation around statues is more fraught because of the perception that they are here for ever.
One exception to that rule, ironically, is the statue of Robert Milligan, a slave trader who helped finance the construction of the original West India Docks. His statue was re-erected in 1997 when the area was redeveloped into the financial and entertainment centre now associated with London’s Docklands. Milligan’s statue has now been taken down by Tower Hamlets Council.
I understand what Tower Hamlets Council are trying to accomplish, but I think they’re talking about it the wrong way round. Looking at it through the lens of which statues should come down, rather than which ones should go up, seems calculated to maximise acrimony and will probably end up with very few statues being taken down – so it will fail on its own terms.
Tower Hamlets has produced or been home to a number of famous people. The artistic duo Gilbert and George have been based there since the 1960s. The musician Wiley, who essentially birthed a genre, was born and works there. Sylvia Pankhurst, the Suffragette, lived and worked there. The philanthropist Jack Petchey – who, unlike Milligan, made his money from selling cars and timeshares rather than people – has supported numerous charities in the borough.
When Milligan’s statue was put back up in 1997, it was intended to symbolise that London’s Docklands were “back” – the area had been regenerated, jobs were coming into the local borough, and so on. Any one of those people, living or dead, would better symbolise the successes and triumphs of the East End than Milligan.
Because there are only so many plinths in the world, the second you start saying things like “let’s put up a statue to the people who make us proud of our neighbourhood, our hometown and our country”, you very rapidly realise that the likes of Milligan are heading to a museum or a sculpture park. When you think of the pride and joy that most communities experience when a native son gets an honour – when I think how excited people were about Wiley’s MBE – you can see how the experience could just be a unifying and joyous one, rather than a divisive and acrimonious one.
This is where the detail of Sadiq Khan’s commission into London’s statues makes a lot of sense – he’s not tasking his group with coming up with a list of statues to pull down, but instead to reccomend names to be put up.
It would make a lot more sense to periodically refresh the nation’s statues and public art on an agreed timeframe, so that we could affirmatively vote to keep works of particular historic or artistic significance and to erect new tributes to people we take pride in, rather than having ad-hoc and bitter debates about which ones make us ashamed.
Update: I’ve amended this piece to reflect the newly-announced detail of Khan’s proposals, which are very close to the type of system I’m talking about here.