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The Controversy Over Statues and How We Commemorate the Past

There is another rhetorical point worth noting, which despite disagreements made me warm toward this work. In addition to her books, von Tunzelmann is a screenwriter. Writing meant to be heard — in speeches, broadcasts, film narration, dialogue — is different from what is meant to be read on a page. It is typically allusive rather than explicit. It suggests rather than belabors its points, and calls on imagination and the other senses to fill in the blanks. I’ve done both kinds of writing, for eye and ear, and am more and more aware of the difference. When it comes to thorny issues, a sentence that can seem simplistic to the eye can be appropriately suggestive through the ear. Imagine the following passage by von Tunzelmann, which links Edward Colston, of Bristol, and George Floyd, of Minneapolis, if you heard it as a voice-over by, say, Peter Coyote in some future 12-part documentary series on fallen-idol statues:

“The stories of this 17th-century merchant in Bristol and the 21st-century security guard almost 4,000 miles away in Minneapolis were connected. Together, they tell a story of empire, slavery and how history is made.”

Von Tunzelmann ends the book with a strong argument that “statuary itself is the problem,” because it is ”didactic, haughty and uninvolving.” One exception she recommends is the informal, accessible “Allies” statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, sitting together on a park bench in New Bond Street in London. I hope her next trip will be to Rapid City, S.D., near Mount Rushmore, where downtown street corners feature life-size bronze statues of American presidents, in similar casual, conversational poses.

“There are far more effective ways” than statues to memorialize the things a society wants to celebrate, she argues: “through festivals, museums, exhibitions, books” and the like. “These forms of commemoration engage people, allow space for them to participate and bring history to life.” If a book’s purpose is to tell you stories and leave you with an idea, this idea of better styles of commemoration will stay with me.

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