The Former Director of the British Museum Weighs in on Statues in the U.K.

Neil MacGregor points to Germany to discuss methods of processing problematic histories.

A statue of English merchant and slave trader Sir John Cass in central London on June 10, 2020. TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

Since the George Floyd protests ripped across the world last summer, conversations have been ongoing regarding the monuments that many different countries retain that reinforce outdated ideas. Neil MacGregor, the founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin and the former director of the British Museum, has just weighed in on the statuary debate in The Art Newspaper. Within the piece, MacGregor banters back and forth on the issue of the best course of action when it comes to problematic statuary. Should it be “retained and explained,” or destroyed?

In the United States, for example, different cities in Virginia have begun to take down their respective statues of Robert E. Lee, albeit at very different paces and with very different processes in regards to governmental bureaucracy. In Richmond, it was just determined that the Lee sculpture could be taken down despite two residents filing lawsuits to block the statue’s removal.

In the U.K. meanwhile, the Bank of England announced that it would be removing busts and 10 oil paintings depicting governors who were known to have had connections with the slave trade, flying in the face of U.K. governmental edicts that such objects should be generally “retained and explained.”

In MacGregor’s opinion, the U.K. should look to Germany for guidance. “Their starting point is always the need to remember what went wrong in order to avoid repeating the mistakes,” he writes. “A key way to encourage remembering is to keep the mistake visible—radically relabelling or repurposing monuments rather than destroying them.”

MacGregor argues that keeping around now-disturbing statues serves an important purpose: “Rather than simply condemning the past, they ask the most uncomfortable of all questions: how could so many people like us once have thought that this was the way to run a society? And where are our moral blind spots today?”

The Former Director of the British Museum Weighs in on Statues in the U.K.