Statues are all the rage

After months of wrangling over the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Madge Dresser finds that structural and symbolic reform is needed, and a new approach to historical public space

If anyone doubted that buildings and monuments have an agency of their own, they need look no further than the passions stirred by statues of Cecil Rhodes. Last year, a statue of Rhodes by Marion Westgate (one of the first women sculptors to get such a prestigious public commission) was toppled from its place of honour at the University of Cape Town where it had stood since 1937. Its removal was part of a campaign to, in the words of its organiser, ‘dislodge social, economic and political power from the hands of the oppressor, so that it can be taken back into the hands of the oppressed…’ The drive to get the Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Oxford taken down has been spearheaded by students and their allies (who include a number of Rhodes scholars) inspired by the success of the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign. The statue holds centre stage on the Rhodes Building at Oriel whose Edwardian façade was designed by Pegram in 1911. The campaign seeks to challenge what its proponents see as the uncritical perpetuation of colonialist and racist values at the university.

It is a testament to the emblematic power of statues that the current protest and the media storm it has unleashed pose some fundamental questions about history, heritage and national identity. There is a particular resonance for architects interested in the politics of public space.

Last December, when the Oxford campaign began, college authorities, mindful of their failure to attract and retain students from diverse social and ethnic backgrounds, initially took a conciliatory stance. Promising to remove the building’s celebratory plaque about Rhodes, they initiated a six-month long consultation about whether or not to remove the statue itself.

For many, the assault on Rhodes was an attack not only on the British empire but on Western values as a whole. The subtext was that the British empire was, as empires go, relatively benign and on balance ‘did good’. Campaigners retorted that such ‘British’ legacies as the rule of law and freedom of the press had hardly been universally applied to colonial subjects whose suffering and death at the hands of the British still remain largely forgotten. 

The students' passionate challenge makes clear that we cannot ignore the political message such emblems convey

The very questioning of the legacy of empire touched a raw and at times reactionary nerve, particularly among the older and whiter members of the British public, made skittish by mass migration, the power of social media and a changing global order. As the broadcaster and historian David Olusoga observed: ‘The statue of Rhodes is in some ways their chosen metaphor for the historical unwillingness of Britain and many of our institutions to address the darker chapters of our colonial past.’ Significantly, after threats from undisclosed donors to withdraw £100m from the college, Oriel decided to retain both the statue and the plaque and made only a rather vague commitment to provide some form of public reinterpretation.

This predictably prompted further polarisation, with campaigners furiously declaring that ‘murderous colonists and slave-holders belong in books and museums, not on the side of buildings’ and asserting that justice ‘requires the removal and rehousing of statues and portraits and the renaming of buildings’.

Removing statues and renaming buildings are of course two separate issues, though as Oliver Cromwell’s example testifies, the removal and destruction of statues is hardly unprecedented. Professor Richard Drayton, a supporter of the Oxford student campaigners (whom, as he has pointed out, have been unduly vilified in the press), says there is a difference between removing statues and querying the way Rhodes is publicly memorialised. He characterised the rift over ‘decolonising the university’ as largely a generational issue. Older opponents of the campaign, he implied, are more apt to be motivated by outdated and euro-centric attitudes to race and history. This may well explain why some older critics of the campaign seem so curiously complacent about the way public space is currently memorialised. But not all of these these critics are Colonel Blimps.

Having witnessed first-hand how totalitarian regimes of the 20th century used a rhetoric of anti-colonialism and social justice to suppress dissent and rewrite history, they are right to urge a more nuanced approach to historic commemoration. After all, if liberal values such as freedom of speech and the rule of law have indeed served imperial interests in the past, it doesn’t follow that they cannot serve social justice if more equally applied. Academics such as Mary Beard warned that removing the statue would simply serve to foreclose rather than enhance public awareness of the historical debate over colonialism. The post-colonial generation reared on Google should not dismiss such reservations simply as self-serving elitism. They should acknowledge that, like them, Beard and others are arguing that structural as well as symbolic reform is needed to redress the inequalities that continue at Oxbridge and in Britain in general.

Even if the Rhodes statue and the Rhodes building itself can be seen as an Edwardian period piece that aesthetically enriches the townscape, which we should conserve rather than obliterate, the students’ passionate challenge makes clear that neither the college nor society at large can ignore the political message such material emblems convey.

In Bristol, the statue of the ‘wise and virtuous’ philanthropist Edward Colston presides over the city centre with no mention of his slave trading or his sugar interests. Since these were made more widely known in the late 1990s, the statue has become lightning rod for racial and class tensions. The public honouring of Colston, as in the case of Rhodes, raises questions about who precisely in these globalised days constitutes ‘the public’, and whose past ‘we’ are honouring. Do we not need to ensure that there are new monuments and new commemorative plaques that honour and include those previously ignored and suppressed?

Olusoga has argued that the Rhodes statue should stay but only if it were recontextualised to make Rhodes’s active responsibility for the death and oppression of many thousands of Africans a matter of public knowledge. But others, such as Chris Patten, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, who criticised the student campaigners as posing a threat to academic freedom, seemed complacently dismissive of the profound sense of isolation and alienation felt by black and minority ethnic students who have daily to walk past such uncritical celebrations of white supremacy. Recontextualised, the retention of the Rhodes statue could afford an opportunity for getting people to think more critically about what we choose to include in ‘our’ public spaces.

Dr Madge Dresser is associate professor of history at the University of the West of England. She is author of Set in stone: Statues and slavery in London, and is co-editor of Slavery and the British Country House with Andrew Hann