The Case for a Statue of Limitations

Let communities decide which monuments should stay.

Thierry Monasse / Getty

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.”

Democratizing the process by which statues are erected, or reconsidered, could go a long way in ensuring that today’s statues are a fair representation of this century, rather than simply a relic of the past. It would also force communities to grapple with the history attached to these monuments, which, in turn, would help dispel the notion that statues were put up as an accurate representation of that history. As Claudine van Hensbergen, an associate professor at Britain’s Northumbria University who studies public statues from the 17th and 18th centuries, told me, “Statues are not history … They are symbols.”

This isn’t to say that the individuals depicted in statues ought to be perfect. While not every historical figure is deserving of being revered in the public realm, those who are aren’t necessarily without flaws. This reality has been at the crux of the debate in Britain over whether a statue of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which was recently defaced with graffiti during an anti-racism protest, should also be targeted for removal. Though Churchill is widely respected for his stewardship of the country and his thwarting of Nazism during the Second World War, he was also an avowed imperialist acknowledged to have espoused racist views.

Here, too, a formalized process by which communities debate and discuss the merits of a statue would help: Giving people the space to weigh the pros and cons would combat the simplistic view that historical figures are either heroes or villains. It would also provide communities with the space to discuss a number of approaches. Some could opt to install supplemental plaques to contextualize certain memorials, as was done with Confederate statues in Georgia. Others could choose to transfer the statue in question to a museum, as is planned for the statues of Colston and a Leopold II statue that was recently removed by Belgian authorities in Antwerp. Enterprising communities could even choose to reimagine statues altogether, as has been suggested by the graffiti artist Banksy, who sketched a remade Colston memorial that maintains the original statue while also commemorating the anti-racism protesters who earlier this month pulled it down into the Bristol harbor.

Logistically, of course, making any changes to, or removing, statues is more complicated. Not all statues are erected on public land, or by public authorities—the University of Oxford’s recent decision to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, whose imperialist legacy made him the target of student protest, would, for example, require coordination with local authorities as it is the equivalent of a historic landmark. (The leader of the Oxford city council has publicly backed the statue’s removal.) “It’s a lot easier to put a statue up than it is to take one down,” van Hensbergen said.

Still, a statue of limitations would aim to do more than simply provide answers for what to do with monuments of figures whose legacies have aged poorly. The concept rests on the notion that communities should periodically come together to reconsider who gets commemorated in the public square. Though this could mean removing monuments that no longer reflect the values of a society, it could also mean adding new ones that do—including more memorials to women, who make up less than a quarter of all statues in Britain and just 10 percent of statues in the United States.

Perhaps more than anything, the debate would help remind communities what statues are for. “Good statues … should be provocative,” van Hensbergen said. “Great art is provocative. It makes us ask questions of ourselves.”