Can the toppling of statues help erect a more comprehensive collective memory?
WORDS BY BEN MCHUTCHION | CANADA | ARTS & LETTERS
FEB 28, 2023 | ISSUE 11
Illustration By Brandon Hicks
Since the start of the #rhodesmustfall movement in 2015, statues commemorating historical figures complicit in slavery and colonialism have been taken down in various countries. Recent statue removals in Canada follow this trend, suggesting an underlying shift in how Canadians think about their country’s history. Narratives that celebrated colonialism have lost their once dominant position in the national consciousness, leading to historical debates in which statues play a central role.
The sociological theory of collective memory is one tool for exploring the significance of statue removals. Collective memory posits that memory is not only held by individuals, but is also developed and held within social groups. Using this framework, the tradition of public memorial statues can be understood as a highly visible manifestation of collective memory. People with social or political power have often used statues in an attempt to permanently fix a preferred collective memory in the public square.