The place where monuments are set up matters. In the fifth century BC the Athenians set up the famous statues of the so-called tyrant-killers – men who’d actually murdered the brother of a local autocratic ruler and thereby played a role in ushering in their celebrated democracy – in the middle of their agora, the city’s main public square. Next month Stephen Hawking’s ashes will be interred in Westminster Abbey near the graves of Newton and Darwin in order to acknowledge his place among the great names of British science. And that much-mocked bust of Ronaldo that did the rounds on social media last year was set up at Madeira’s airport to greet visitors and remind them that the island was the footballer’s birthplace. Monuments take a large part of their meaning from their spatial setting. At the same time monuments can reshape the meaning of their setting in a kind of conversation.
Over the last two weeks I’ve been writing an article exploring the relationship between statues and their public setting both in the ancient world and in modern culture. To illustrate some of the key issues I’ve discuss the statues of Parliament Square in London. In the process I came across some features about the way in which certain statues are labeled on Google Maps, which I found interesting and which I think have important implications. In particular these observations concern the recently unveiled statue of Millicent Fawcett, the first woman to be granted a statue on the square or “the suffragette” as Google called her.
The unveiling of the new statue just over a month ago on 24th April this year was celebrated nationally and attended by a number of high profile politicians including the PM and the Mayor of London. But the monument has not been without its detractors. A rival group of campaigners has argued – and is still arguing – that Emmeline Pankhurst would be a more fitting recipient of the honour of being the first woman to get a statue in the square. Pankhurst already has a statue in London and not so far from Parliament Square at the southwest end of the Palace of Westminster. It was set up in 1930 and moved to its present location in 1958. I wanted to use this controversy to discuss the way that location matters. Pankhurst’s advocates don’t just care that she has a statue. They care about where she has a statue. Parliament Square with its bronze likenesses of Churchill, Lloyd George, Disraeli, Gandhi, Mandela and six other exclusively male statesmen is seen as the more prestigious, the more symbolically charged location.
To make my point more precisely I thought I’d check with Google Maps just how long a walk it is between Parliament Square and the Pankhurst memorial (about 500 m) and that’s when I became interested in the way that the website subtly ranks the importance of the various statues on the square. Most of the statues aren’t shown at all – only those of Churchill, Peel, Palmerston, Gandhi and the new statue of Fawcett are marked. However, while the men were all given names, Fawcett’s monument, as already mentioned was labeled “the suffragette statue”. The implication was that this wasn’t a statue of any particular campaigner for votes for women but rather a generic representation of an anonymous suffragette. There was also something striking about the order in which the statues appeared as I zoomed in and out of the map. Zoomed right out the only statue that was marked was that of Churchill. Zooming in slightly further Peel, Gandhi and Palmerston appeared but it was only when I zoomed right in that the “statue of sufraggette” was shown at all. As mentioned the other statues weren’t marked at all but in the hierarchy of monuments that are shown Fawcett’s was the one deemed least important. Finally, while the others were all marked with symbols suggesting some kind of monument the Fawcett statue had the icon of a camera suggesting it was something someone happened to have snapped a picture of but not a real monument in the same sense as the others.
So why is any of this important?
The meanings of statues and other monuments are not fixed in stone – or bronze. Statues mean different things to different people. Their importance for a society as a whole can wax or wane over time. We can forget who they represent or we can decide that the people who were granted statues in the past don’t actually deserve them. Within a generation or two of setting up their statues of the tyrant killers the Athenians were already debating whether the murder they had committed had in fact been a public service – a political assassination – or whether it was actually the result of a lovers’ quarrel. Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square is the one shown when you zoom out furthest on Google Maps because Churchill, voted as “the Greatest Britain” of all time in 2002, is arguably our most famous leader. But he owes that status to the importance we now attach to the Second World War and there is nothing to say that with the passing of time he will continue to enjoy the same significance. Even now his statue has periodically been defaced. Whether the vandals’ grudge is actually against Churchill himself or whether his fame simply makes the statue an obvious target for venting anger is a different question. The point is that not everyone reveres the statue – its importance is contested.
The meaning of the statuary assemblage of Parliament Square as a whole is also continually changing and being redefined as new statues are added. Where once it was the preserve of statues of Britain’s most illustrious political leaders, with statues of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela it has now become a commemorative space that transcends national boundaries and is somewhere for celebrating universal human aspirations toward equality, dignity and peace. The addition of Fawcett’s statue makes sense in this context. As the first statue of a woman in the square it is a powerful challenge to the previously exclusive maleness of the square. That was the whole point of erecting it. Labelling all the male statues on the map while referring to Fawcett simply as “the suffragette” rather undermines that point, to put it mildly.
Fawcett’s statue didn’t just happen to appear in the square. It was the end result of a campaign started by activist Caroline Criado-Perez who was frustrated that all the other statues in Parliament Square were of men. She started an online petition, which gathered nearly 85,000 signatures and the support of several high profile celebrities and politicians. Decisions were made about who the recipient of this first female statue should be, about the artist commissioned to make the work, about how the statue should be portrayed and where exactly it should stand.
The choice of Fawcett, one of the early pioneers of the cause for female suffrage in Britain, was made by Criado-Perez and the statue’s unveiling was timed to coincide with the centenary of women – or at least women over 30 – being granted the vote in 1918. The message of the statue – like all statues – is a complex one in which most of the details are significant. Above all, however, the statue is there to remind us that political equality for women was hard fought and that the struggle against discrimination is by no means over. The banner the statue holds before it proclaims “Courage Calls to Courage Everywhere” – words written by Fawcett herself – and is a call to us to remain vigilant.
The importance of Fawcett’s statue will undoubtedly change over time. As the newness wears off and it becomes part of the furniture of the square it will be absorbed into the national consciousness. It will undoubtedly be joined by new statues, some of them probably – hopefully – also of women. The people honoured by statues and the things they are honoured for will create a conversation between these monuments through which their meaning will be subtly altered.
But such conversations don’t just take place within the settings where monuments stand and between the monuments themselves. They also take place in the real world – in the pages of newspapers, between families and friends and, increasingly, online. How much importance we attach to Fawcett’s statue and the meanings we attribute to it will be determined by these conversations. The way that Google Maps portrayed the monument was a contribution – albeit perhaps a small one – to this conversation and one that definitely downplayed the statue’s significance by neglecting to name her and by presenting her statue as somehow less important than those of the men.
The plinth on which Fawcett’s statue stands is intended to challenge the vision of history, suggested by the other monuments in the square, in one more important way. On it are inscribed the names and likenesses of 55 women and 4 men who also made a significant contribution to the cause of female suffrage. This is an argument against the all too common view that history is shaped by great men, which galleries of statues usually end up reinforcing. The base of Fawcett’s statue reminds us that the struggle to obtain the vote for women was not achieved solely through the efforts of one individual. One of the names inscribed there is that of Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragette.
Nonetheless the figure atop the base has been chosen for a reason. This is not meant to be an anonymous statue.
There might be those who disagree with the choice but Criado-Perez chose Millicent Fawcett as the one to be immortalized in bronze because she was one of the earliest campaigners for votes for women, because of the energy she put into the cause throughout her life, and because she hadn’t previously been honored with a statue. Labeling her monument simply ‘statue of suffragette’ dismisses all of that as irrelevant and does a disservice not only to Fawcett herself but also to those who worked to have her statue erected. It also plays footloose with the facts and manages to get the history wrong, which is quite remarkable considering the label was just three words long. Fawcett, unlike Pankhurst, wasn’t a suffragette at all. She was a suffragist.
The two groups distinguished themselves primarily by the methods they used to try to achieve their aims, the suffragists pursuing a purely peaceful course, the suffragettes willing to resort to more radical methods and sometimes violence. Which group played a greater role in achieving the vote for women and their attitudes toward one another are issues that continue to be hotly debated. Such complexity is brushed aside if all of those women are simply thrown under the umbrella term “suffragette”.
It’s probably clear from the above that I’m already a fan of the new statue of Fawcett even though, living in Denmark, I haven’t yet been to see it. I think it matters that the message the statue is meant to convey does get through. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of how we think about this particular statue at a more academic level I think this case says something interesting about how public statues are represented online through tools like Google Maps.
I’m not suggesting that Google deliberately attempts to control the way we think about these things. Far from it – much of the information in Google Maps has been entered by anonymous volunteers and the importance given to different monuments is, I assume at least in part, a factor of the interest shown in them. Nonetheless representations of monuments on such tools can feed into the conversation we have about their significance, not only reflecting the public attitude toward such monuments but also subtly shaping those attitudes.
It would be interesting to look at other cities and spaces of commemoration and consider the choices that have been made there. But first back to my article,
A coda: you might have noticed that throughout this piece in talking about Google Maps’ representation of Parliament Square I am using the past tense. When I noticed the label ‘Statue of Suffragette’ last week I posted about it on Twitter and drew it to the attention of Caroline Criado-Perez . One of her followers took it up with Google and a few days later I received this tweet from Criado-Perez: “Twitter delivers. Statue now renamed on @GoogleMaps”. And so the conversation about the meaning of our monuments goes on…