Christopher Columbus

Toppling statues and renaming streets – nothing new

Across the world – but particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom – we see the toppling of statues and a move towards the renaming of streets. Much of this a reaction to the association of people and names with historic racism.

Opinions are divided and I suspect will become even more so. But here’s the thing. There’s nothing very new in any of this. People have been tearing down statues for centuries. Names of streets and buildings have changed according to political fashion. What we’re witnessing is not something unprecedented.

Toppling statues and temples in Ancient Egypt

When I first toured the temples of ancient Egypt in 2009, I was really struck by the amount of early Christian defacing and destruction of the Pharaohs’ legacy. To make the point that the Christian God was better than Horus or Osiris, Christian zealots got to work with their chisels and hammers.

Byzantine crosses were etched deeply into the walls of temples that were already two thousand years old by that time. And an entire temple to the god Serapis was torn down by Christian monks. Goodness knows how many statues came toppling down.

Romans – big into toppling statues

The Romans were forever tearing down the statues and melting down the coinage of previous emperors no longer in favour. And then they became Christian and evolved into the Byzantine empire – with Constantinople as its capital – there were the endless iconoclastic disputes.

This is when some Christians believed all icons, statues and visual depictions of God were pagan graven images and had to be destroyed. A point of view revived centuries later in the Protestant Reformation. That saw English churches stripped of their ornate rood screens and effigies of the Virgin Mary and saints.

Walls with colourful images were similarly whitewashed. All of which left us with the simple village church that most people think is “traditional” in England. In fact, it was the product of an act of massive nationwide vandalism orchestrated by King Henry VIII’s minister Thomas Cromwell.

Renaming entire cities – a long history!

Renaming streets and even whole cities has been a recurrent feature of history. New York was called New Amsterdam under Dutch rule. Toronto was originally called York before its incorporation in 1834. In Australia, Melbourne was called Bearbrass once upon a time.

In India, Kokata was formerly Calcutta and before that the very English, Fort William. Africa has renamed many cities to re-Africanise them. So in Zimbabwe, the city of Salisbury was renamed Harare in 1982. While Kenya removed the English colonial name Broderick Falls from one of its towns and chose instead Webuye.

It’s unsettling for many people to see statues toppling to the ground. But rest assured, that they were almost made to be toppled. Historically speaking, it’s amazing how long some of our statues have lasted.

As somebody who grew up in Britain, I was certainly shocked on a visit to Richmond, Virginia to see how the Confederacy is still very much in your face. Of course the historian inside me is interested. But I don’t need a boulevard full of slave owners memorialised in stone and bronze to remind me of the Civil War.

Has mass cultural tourism gone completely mad?

The cruise ship pulls into port. Everybody gets off and heads down to the designated museum or art gallery. They see the landmark painting or sculpture, take a selfie and tick it off the list. As they enter and leave – they completely ignore a host of other great works of art as they stampede towards that one well-known object.

I was at the Louvre in Paris last week and made a film – which you can see below – of the mass of people cramming in to see the Mona Lisa. Over the years, I’ve popped into the Louvre to see the enigmatic lady with her strange smile. In the old days, you could wander over to the Mona Lisa pretty quickly, have a look and then take in some other fine compositions.

But now – it’s the main event. You have to queue for ages to take your selfie. And there’s certainly no spiritual atmosphere or moment to linger and appreciate. This is a conveyor belt approach and you get your moment to admire the brushwork of Leonardo da Vinci and then move on.

Question I’d like to put is – does this matter or is it a problem? My only feeling is that for the museums and galleries, it’s a great money spinner. In effect, the Mona Lisa is subsidising everything else the museum is doing. But for the visitor – the tourist – it’s a very narrow view of a great institution like the Louvre.

Your views? And now – watch the film!