Key Question: Should monuments of controversial historical figures be removed, or does this make us victims of history rather than subjects who can understand and engage with it?
In June 2020, in one of many “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) demonstrations which took place after the murder of George Floyd in the USA, a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was torn down by an angry crowd of demonstrators in Bristol, UK.
It was then vandalised, dragged to the local harbour, and then dumped into the sea as the crowd cheered:
This dramatic event re-ignited a debate about the future of hundreds of statues of historical figures which fill our public spaces in the UK, the US and elsewhere.
- On one side of the argument are those who argue that tearing down statues of controversial figures demonstrates a healthy willingness to challenge outdated attitudes and to reassess our relationship with our historical past.
- On the other side of the case are people who contend the opposite: the destruction of such statues reflects a cowardly unwillingness to acknowledge and come to terms with the fact that our society is built on a racist, sexist, uncomfortable past.
In this activity, students are guided through the following two questions and activities:
Question 1: How do we decide which individuals are so controversial that the future of their statue should be reconsidered?
Students are presented with 20 controversial statues to research. After feedback, the class votes on which one most deserves to have its future reconsidered.
Question 2: In the case of individuals that are now felt to be controversial, what should we do about their statues?
Students are presented with 8 source extracts from commentators with a range of opinions about what should happen to controversial statues. They organise these ideas and vote on which one they agree with.