Today’s top story on ‘Google News’ is Heritage Crime! Are people finally realising the importance of Heritage? Well, yes and no.
When I say the top story is Heritage Crime, I’m talking about the smashing of a statue. Specifically the statue of Lenin which stood at the top of Shevchenko Boulevard in Kiev, Ukraine.
In the coverage of this important series of demonstrations, the toppling of the statue is significant news. Not because people are concerned about the damage to the statue, but because its destruction resonates, shows the force of feeling. the iconoclasm is seen as a significant challenge to Russia, because the statue marks the historical relationship between the two countries. Narratives of heritage preservation have been invoked by the Ukraine government (hoping themselves to be preserved):
“Prime Minister Mykola Azarov compared the toppling of the statue to the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001, Interfax-Ukraine news agency reported.
‘War on monuments is always barbarity,’ he said.” (from BBC article above)
The act of iconoclasm is powerful, it does political work.
Sam Hardy points out that the meaning and consequences of the action are intimately associated with who is carrying it out. He reports that the toppling is being associated with the ultra-nationalist group Svoboda. Sasha Senderovich argues here that subversion might do more to change things than destruction.
But contrast all of this with concerns about the ‘tradition’ of putting traffic cones on a statue of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow. After years of students climbing up to add the cone the statue has been scuffed and its sword has been damaged. Paul Barford worries that we aren’t showing heritage proper respect .
Which is worse, being toppled or being scuffed?
Donna Yates, a criminologist studying the antiquities trade, makes me think it might be better to be toppled. In a conversation on Twitter she wondered if we find this toppling more acceptable “because it *is* engagement with the object. Experiencing destruction collectively is an experience.” (@DrDonnaYates on Twitter Dec 9th)
If the statue of Lenin had remained, been the target of graffiti, even traffic cones, would it have lost power? Does it gain power by being the centre piece in this episode of political theatre?
As Heritage professionals we work to help people see heritage as relevant, important, a vibrant part of communities. Perhaps iconoclasm reminds us that heritage *is* powerful and important to people. Perhaps iconoclasm adds to that power. But it isn’t the designation by experts, or the artistry of the sculptor that makes statues worth toppling (or indeed venerating). It is the way they are woven into the stories that matter to people. Heritage professionals can contribute to these stories, but we can’t control them.