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Thursday, December 8, 2022

London needs statue park for removed memorials, says author Alex von Tunzelmann

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statue park should be set up in London to display memorials that the public wants removing from their existing sites, a historian said on Thursday as her book on “Fallen Idols” was shortlisted for her subject’s most celebrated prize.

Alex von Tunzelmann said that moving historical figures whose conduct in the past now made people “queasy” to somewhere modelled on the famous statue park in Budapest could create a “wonderful” new tourist attraction for the capital.

She said it could also help to improve historical understanding about important figures and host educational visits by schoolchildren.

Potential contenders for removal could include the statue of James II on Trafalgar Square because of his links to slavery and the statue in Whitehall of Clive of India because of his exploitative activities in Britain’s former colony and the blame attached to him for a 1770 famine that killed millions.

Ms von Tunzelman, who lives in London, said “ugly” statues, such as the “marmite” memorial to Mary Wollstoncraft by Maggi Hambling erected less than two years ago in Stoke Newington, could also be shifted to a new park.

A Grade II-listed bronze statue of Robert Clive, located on King Charles Street in Whitehall

/ Getty Images

She suggested that instead of putting up new great men and women, London could fill vacated sites with a new style of collective monuments produced by some of the capital’s artists.

Her comments came as Ms Tunzelmann was named on a six strong shortlist for this year’s £50,000 Wolfson History Prize for her book “Fallen Idols”. It tells the story of 12 statues worldwide that have been taken down.

They include memorials to Stalin, Lenin, and Saddam Hussein, as well as one of the Duke of Cumberland in London and the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol that was toppled during the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020.

Other shortlisted authors include Marc David Baer, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics for his book “The Ottomans”, and the Cambridge academic Clare Jackson for “Devil-Land”, a portrayal of England “under siege” during the Stuart and late Tudor period hailed as a “masterpiece” by the Wolfson History Prize judges.

But the most topical of the books is Ms von Tunzelmann’s, which comes as a commission for diversity in the public realm” set up by London Mayor Sadiq Khan continues to deliberate over the future of statues in the capital.

Alex Von Tunzelmann

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Ms von Tunzelmann said she was “definitely not out there swinging my crowbar”, but that Londoners should be able to see unpopular statues removed with sufficient public support and that the “ideal solution” would be to shift them to a statue park.

“These outdoor sculpture parks can be really wonderful,” she said. “The one in Budapest is extraordinary and very well done. It would be fantastic place for school trips and a really good starting point for discussion and there’s plenty of places in greater London where there would be good possibilities of setting that up.

“There’s often very little discussion about these statues until someone objects to them, but moving them to place dedicated to them where you could have lots more information, discuss the debate, would actually mean they probably get looked at much more and appreciated more.

“It would be a positive outcome for people who feel they are part of our history and for people who feel queasy about having them in a position of veneration in their town.”

Ms von Tunzelmann, who as well as writing five history books was also the screen writer for the 2017 film Churchill starring Brian Cox, added that rather that swapping replaced statues for new ones, “collective” monuments might be a better alternative.

“We have in London an extraordinary community of artists, sculptors and all sorts of people and it would be fantastic to put out the challenge to artists to come up with new types of monuments,” she said.

“Not everything has to be statues all the time – we’ve already got in London some incredibly moving war memorials, which are collective and not about individuals, and are important to people because they are not just about some valorous individual, but about a community effort.

“That’s a lot more effective so I’d love to see artists given creative free rein in a city where we are very lucky and extremely rich in talented artists.”

Statue of James II in Trafalgar Square

/ Prioryman

On which statues should be replaced, Ms von Tunzelmann said it would be a “community decision” based on “what people want in their environment.”

She added: “They don’t exist for history, they exist for us and the reason I wanted to write the book is I think it’s really interesting to have a discussion about how we remember our history.

“You don’t always have to pull a statute down to have a discussion, but when these controversies come up you get a lot people who want to find out more about why these things are controversial and that’s a pretty good prompt, whatever side of the political debate you’re on.” The winner of this year’s Wolfson History Prize, which is marking its 50th anniversary, will be announced on 22 June at a ceremony at the Wallace Collection in London that will also be shown live online.

As well as Ms von Tunzelmann, Professor Baer and Dr Jackson, the other shortlisted authors are Malcolm Gaskill for “The Ruin of All Witches” about a society in turmoil in 17thcentury America; “God: An Anatomy” by Professor Francesca Stavrakoplou; and “Going to Church in Medieval England” by Nicholas Orme.

The winner will receive £50,000, while the other shortlisted authors will each receive £5,000. Previous winners of the prize, which celebrates high quality and readable history writing, include Professor Mary Beard and Professor Simon Schama.

Budapest’s statue park is officially called Momento Park and contains 41 statues and sculptures from the Communist era between 1945 and 1989, including gigantic works depicting Lenin, Marx, Engels.

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