The limitations of statues
In response to RT Britnell’s letter on statues (October), the arguments in favour of these public monuments can be summarised as follows: 1) they convey valuable lessons on history; 2) they are reminders of the uncomfortable aspects of our past; 3) they somehow symbolise who we are and where we’ve come from, and 4) they are celebrations of specific aspects of a person’s history, for example their military genius or subsequent philanthropy.
I would argue that statues do none of these things effectively. A statue cannot convey complexities, subtleties or multiple viewpoints. A statue is virtually useless as a history lesson and too simplistic as a moral lesson.
Many of those who oppose certain controversial statues are not doing so out of a lack of historical understanding, nor because they have somehow been incubated against any disturbing aspects of our shared past, but quite the opposite.
An individual may fill their homes with books and magazines about history (and I would celebrate that). They have much less choice about the public art they have to live with. Similarly, if a person has a bookshelf full of magazines about the Nazis, or the Mongol empire or the crusades, it would be ridiculous to leap to conclusions about that person’s worldview or morality. If, however, they erected a statue outside their house of Adolf Hitler, Genghis Khan or the Knights Templar it would not be unreasonable for neighbours to raise concern.
Robert Nathan, Plymouth
We reward the Letter of the Month writer with our ‘History Choice’ book of the month. This issue, it’s The Cold War: A World History by Odd Arne Westad. Read the review on page 69