The Case for a Statue of LimitationsHistorians in the News
tags: memorials, statues, public history
The debate over what should be done with controversial or offensive statues—whether they be of Edward Colston, the 17th-century British slave trader; Belgium’s King Leopold II, whose brutal reign led to the deaths of millions of Congolese; or Robert E. Lee, the Confederate army commander—largely centers on competing narratives between those who argue that getting rid of these statues is tantamount to erasing history and those who say that far from representing history, these monuments idolize the role of those they depict.
While some have suggested placing these statues in a museum or leaving them to deteriorate naturally, I propose another way: a statue of limitations, where towns and cities would hold a mass review of their monuments, say every 50 years. At that point, citizens would be tasked with deciding whether to maintain the memorials as they are, reimagine them, or remove them from the public square for good. These reviews, led by local authorities or citizens’ assemblies, would democratize the debate around these civic symbols and, perhaps most crucially, force communities to engage with the history and values they represent.
This isn’t a simple solution. For one thing, it would undoubtedly require plenty of study and deliberation, which is more than can be said for the processes that led to many of these statues being erected in the first place. “It’s not like some democratic assembly or a panel of historians decides to do these things,” Christopher Phelps, a historian and associate professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham in Britain, told me. “It’s usually the people who have great power and wealth deciding to honor the kind of past or kind of society they want.”
Take the Colston statue in Bristol, England, for example. The monument was erected in 1895, more than a century and a half after its likeness’s death, in a desperate bid by the city’s business and political elites to quell radical stirrings among the lower classes. Colston, whose philanthropy helped build the port city, seemed to be an ideal symbol of civic unity, even if the source of his wealth was not. A similar rationale informed the construction of statues of King Leopold II across Belgium—a process that occurred decades after the monarch’s death at the behest of his successor and nephew, Albert I, who sought to recast his uncle as a benevolent king. This reframing of history also applied to the building of Confederate monuments in the United States, the large majority of which were put up not during the Civil War, but decades after the South’s defeat. Confederate monuments “are not representations of Confederate life or the South or American history,” Phelps said, “but are a representation of the way people in the early 20th century tried to justify that past and reconcile it with national unity.”
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