Off the Record: Statues sometimes outlive the fervor that built them

Off the Record

“Cleansing” of statues continues in America — and I don’t mean spraying the pigeon poop off them with high pressure hoses, but the removal of those statues to bygone and no longer popular ideas.

It is good to remember that this kind of rewriting of history has been going on since history began. Ancient Egyptian pharaohs sometimes obliterated the images of their predecessors from murals, or defaced their statues. Romans probably did the same to the less popular emperors. In Soviet Russia, Lenin wiped out any reference to Trotsky — after wiping out Trotsky. Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union with an iron fist for decades, but just try finding a statue or a bust of him there today.

Statues that are built as tributes to great men and great ideas tend to outlive the memories of the great men and the popularity of the great idea. So it is with the Confederate monuments that are the subject of so much controversy today. We are outgrowing the regional pride and subliminal racism they represent. They mean different things to different people now, and they are being removed.

Some people are looking for a thorough cleansing of our culture. A group is getting a petition up to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus at the Minnesota State Capitol and replace it with a statue of the pop artist Prince, saying Prince more accurately represents Minnesota values.

We could do that, I suppose, but what happens in 40 or 50 years when the memory of Prince fades, people quit listening to his music and only remembered he died of an opioid overdose?

If you want a real good example of a statue outliving its reason for existence, in a place where it probably never had one, consider the case of the monument to Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, raised in Dublin, Ireland. At Trafalgar the British fleets defeated the French and Spanish navies in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars.

Shot by a French musketeer during the battle, Lord Nelson died during the battle and became one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. Monuments and busts were raised to him throughout the British empire, including one on Sackville Street in Dublin in 1809. Britain had Ireland firmly under its heel at that time and could do what it wanted, but the monument, a granite pillar with Nelson standing atop, rankled the Irish people no end. For over 150 years it stood, even after the Easter Uprising in 1916 that led to the eventual creation of the Irish Republic. There were frequent demands to take the monument down, but no one bothered to until March 8, 1966, 50 years after the rebellion, when an Irish Republican blew it up with a bomb.

Sackville Street was later named O’Connell Street in honor of the great Irish stateman Daniel O’Connell, “The Emancipator,” who forced the British Parliament to remove many of the penal laws that stripped Irish citizens of many rights.

Today a statue of O’Connell stands looking over O’Connell Street, a far more popular figure and likely to last a lot longer than Nelson.

——

Kevin Sweeney has been the managing editor of The Journal since May 1985. A native of St. Paul, he worked at newspapers in LeSueur and Albert Lea before moving to New Ulm. Contact him at ksweeney@nujournal.com.

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