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‘This is more important than your hurt feelings’: What happened when I toured Britain’s ‘problematic’ statues

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As the din of this week’s public debate surrounding quite what to do with our “problematic” public monuments has grown to a tumult, Alice Procter mainly felt a sense of excitement. For her, this conversation has been a long time coming.

“I guess for a lot of people this whole thing has only started this week, but many of the campaigns around statues of controversial figures – about Cecil Rhodes, or Robert Milligan, or especially Edward Colston – have been going on for years. It’s just great that something is finally happening.” 

Procter, a 25-year-old historian and writer, is an expert in the matter. For the past three years, she has led the hugely popular ‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’ ­around six major museums and galleries in London. Three to five times a week, Procter takes dozen-strong groups of art enthusiasts and tourists on a refreshing journey around the permanent exhibitions at the likes of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate. 

The idea is to shine a light on the conveniently forgotten (or deliberately obfuscated) role of empire and colonialism both in the art displayed, and in the very way it is displayed. She’s also written a book, The Whole Picture, on the same subject, and now plans a sequel about public monuments

We meet at the Victoria Memorial, the imposing, gilded marble commemoration of Queen Victoria that doubles as a roundabout outside Buckingham Palace. Procter doesn’t yet do tours outside. “This is part of the reason,” she says, looking up at the drizzle. 

She isn’t affiliated with any campaigns to remove monuments – such as Topple the Racists, an online hit list of statues of individuals with links to the slave trade – but is delighted that we’ve come round to rethinking who and what is celebrated on our streets.

“It’s fascinating we’ve now shifted from the idea that statues are always going to stay put, because that’s just not historically accurate at all,” she says. “Plenty of people opposed the statues people have been saying ‘represent the views of the time’. These issues have always been there.”

Born to Australian parents, Procter lived in Hong Kong until she was eight, which gave her an interest in the untold context of the British Empire, before she and her family moved to the UK permanently. 

We look up at Victoria, who sits stern and haughty on her throne. Procter says it’s illustrative of a wider issue around the limitations of public art as a teaching resource. “This is all about her as an imperial figure, with allegories for profit and prosperity.

“Sculptures will always be simplistic – there isn’t room for footnotes – but it’s important to remember where that profit came from. Britain’s power was built on its navy, and within that is the Transatlantic slave trade. We need to remember that centuries of colonialism laid the groundwork for a figure like Queen Victoria,” she explains. “I would just love more context for public art.”

We wander up The Mall, and are soon met by Captain James Cook. Procter reads aloud the swashbuckling description of an explorer “travers[ing] the ocean gates” and shakes her head. “He sounds like a hero, but there’s a lot missing from that conversation. No commemoration of the indigenous people who travelled with him, for one thing.”   

Over the road, in Trafalgar Square, Admiral Nelson’s atop his column. It’s on the topple list. “Well, Nelson was really, really racist. He was very pro-slavery, and wrote a letter stating that he’d essentially fight until his dying breath to stop William Wilberforce and his brethren, so we’ve got him in his own words.”

Once you begin noticing how frequent the statues are, and simplistically valiant these monuments have been made to look, it’s difficult to argue with Procter’s belief that we should look at them anew. Even as a historian, she isn’t fully convinced by the idea the worst of them should be moved to museums, as the Colston statue will be, either.

“There’s a feeling that museums should be a relic box of everything – ‘Oh, just shove it in a museum.’ But most museums don’t have the funds or physical space for these statues. And why do we feel the need? I don’t think there’s any danger of waking up and forgetting slavery was a bad thing if we don’t have a sculpture of somebody like Edward Colston around. We could channel those funds into something contemporary that better remembers the people who went through it.”

A wander down Whitehall presents even more villains. There’s Robert Clive, the man who established British rule in India, whose statue the historian William Dalrymple called for the removal of this week, outside the foreign office. There’s 1st Viscount Slim, Field Marshall Douglas Earl Haig… and at the end, in Parliament Square, Winston Churchill. 

Despite cleaning attempts, the words “WAS A RACIST”, daubed by protesters last weekend, are still visible on its stone base. “This is the thing, he was a racist, it’s not really up for debate. His contemporaries thought so too,” Procter says.

She understands that many may struggle to re-evaluate historical icons, but has blunt words for those having difficulty. 

“Any kind of cultural moment like this is going to have pain for some people. You might have to let go of something you liked, but you have to come to terms with the fact that this is more important than your hurt feelings.”

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