by William Stupp


Across the world, statues are being torn down and defaced. Smartphone footage shows crowds of protestors in the US chaotically pulling down bronze figures of white men. Elsewhere, the offending monuments are hastily removed in the dead of night without any fanfare. Others are left to stand but bear the scars of red paint, symbolizing blood. This new transnational movement against public statuary seems to have come up suddenly, but in each case the anger which topples supposedly immortal figures is actually deep-seated, the result of decades and centuries of hurt.


Monuments to colonialism

In the Netherlands, as in the US, certain statues are coming under fire as part of the larger movement which seeks to draw attention to racism. Monuments honoring figures famous for their roles in Dutch mercantile adventures have been attacked by people who connect the colonialism of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to the enduring problem of systematic racism. Tied in many cases to the Black Lives Matter movement, activists are challenging statues of people once considered to be Dutch national heroes. In doing so, they have sparked a backlash from more conservative sections of the population who decry attacks on statues as unpatriotic attempts to shame people and erase history. Authorities are often caught in the middle, keeping opposing groups of demonstrators apart and defending statues from vandalism while contemplating whether certain changes ought to be made.

What to make of the issue? To contextualize this conflict, it is useful to take a look at the history of such monuments.


‘Immortal’ objects, eternal debate

For as long as people have been putting up statues, others have been trying to tear them down. Monuments have always been contested. “It’s just something people do,” says professor Kitty Zijlmans of Leiden University. Stijn Bussels, also of Leiden, singles out two time periods in European history where statues were particularly important: antiquity and the 19th century. In the ancient Mediterranean, city states and kingdoms were regularly erecting and removing statues.

Across different cultures, different customs and taboos dictated which kind of people deserved statues. Most often, only kings and figures from religion and mythology were so honored. Still, there was ongoing debate on the matter and practices changed between cities and across centuries. The Roman idea of damnacio memoria (condemning the memory) saw statues regularly torn down as rulers fell out of favor. In Greece, people worried about the hubris of honoring individuals more than the city as a whole.

According to Bussels, statues have always been a way for societies to show their norms and principles. Values are “performed, or erected or constructed […] by the erection of statues,” he says. “But norms and values are always negotiated,” and shift with changing times. 

For most of history, statues honored rulers and gods. Things changed a bit in the 19th century, but the role of statues remained the same. After Belgium became independent in 1830, the Netherlands underwent a process of “discovering its own national awareness, says Zijlmans. It did so, in part, by erecting statues, including most of those currently causing controversy. Political leaders wanted to show their people and themselves that theirs was a country “with great men [who] accomplish[ed] great things. [The purpose was] to fortify the idea of the Dutch national state,” according to Zijlmans.


For a time, this seems to have worked. After a statue of Rembrandt was put up in Amsterdam, the painter reached newfound heights of fame and popularity. His paintings didn’t change, but people began to see them in a new light. The Dutch could now see themselves as a nation with tremendous artistic accomplishments. Similarly, statues of sailors and colonialists (some of whom were involved with slavery) illustrated to the people an image of Dutch power and adventurousness. Specific figures painted a more general picture of “the Dutch as clever, innovative merchants,” explains Bussels. More so than in ancient times, statues depicted less famous figures. Not kings and gods, but civil servants, artists and anonymous soldiers who symbolically stood for the whole nation. According to Bussels, this represents a significant change in values, emblematic of the nationalism which characterized the time period.


New interpretations of old stone

Dr. Jeroen Boomgaard, who teaches at the University of Amsterdam and Rietveld Academy, calls attention to the changing perception of statues. Beginning earlier but accelerating after World War II, statues became more symbolic and less likely to feature specific individuals or even human forms. More emphasis was placed on “art as a form of education” and less on a stimulating nationalistic feeling, according to Boomgaard.

He highlights three time periods relevant to the statues currently under fire. Before they were made into statues, people like Piet Hein and Witte de With lived in the 16th and 17th centuries, the so-called Dutch golden age. Then, mostly after 1830, came the time in which their statues were erected (in order to forward a nationalistic end). Finally we have the present period, which could be said to start with the end of World War II and decolonization. 

As Boomgaard sees it, during their lives and in the century afterward, figures associated with the VOC (Dutch East India Company) were unambiguously celebrated. By the 19th century, values had changed somewhat. People accepted that some of the actions of colonialists (such as slave-holding and warring against indigenous peoples) were no longer justifiable. Nevertheless, statues were still erected and the people depicted were lionized and treated as heroes. This might be seen as contradictory, but it can also be read as an acknowledgement that values change. To this day many people believe that historical figures should be seen in the context of their time and say that it is anachronistic to judge them by the standards of the present. 


A new trend was underway by the end of World War Two. Things started off slowly enough, but the tide of change has begun to accelerate rapidly this century. Nowadays, says Boomgaard, people are reassessing things. Whereas before most people could see heroics even in historical actions that they would condemn were they to happen today, for many that is now impossible. The actions of colonialists are neither celebrated nor justified. With many seeing things this way, the appearance of such figures in places of honor is not only incongruous, but also offensive. “[Many people, particularly] people of color, feel hurt. And we should take that to heart,” explains Zijlmans. 


‘Heroes of Never’

Helden van Nooit (Never a Hero) describes itself as an activist art collective. In June, the anonymous organization launched an Instagram account documenting their guerrilla actions and explaining their platform. Objecting to the glorification of colonialist figures, the group has defaced several statues using red paint. Targets of their ire include Piet Hein and Witte de With (who they refer to as “colonial terrorists”). A memorial to Pim Fortuyn, a right-wing, populist politician who was assassinated in 2002, was also vandalized. The group seems to view him as a fascist. They have also criticized several big museums for not doing enough to acknowledge their “racist and colonial foundations”.


In essence, Helden van Nooit seeks to challenge Dutch people’s conception of history and narratives which apologize for and even glorify colonialism. “History needs to be re-written,” as several of their Instagram posts proclaim. They aim to call attention to histories of exploitation by re-contextualizing monuments through their political acts. 

Mauritshuis reopeing day
The Mauritshuis, named after a slaver, has attracted negative attention.


Erasing history?

Though many have expressed support for Helden van Nooit, others decry their actions. Seemingly in direct response to the group, someone used red paint to deface a statue of Elieser, an African slave who died in the Netherlands in the 17th century. To Helden van Nooit, this hateful act was an expression of the persistent support of white supremacy in the Netherlands. 

Few who are opposed to this kind of activism would say they support colonialism, slavery or the theft of indigenous land and riches. A more common argument, heard in the US, UK as well as in the Netherlands, is that by attacking monuments, activists are trying to erase history.

The professors interviewed by 31Mag do not give much credence to this idea. The activists are not calling for figures like Piet Hein to be forgotten. They merely object to honoring proponents of colonialism in statues. They seek to re-contextualize them in a way which acknowledges the effect their actions had on indigenous peoples.

To Boomgaard, the protests, activism and vandalism are the “consequence of a democratic society re-assessing public space”. As we have seen throughout the history of statues, this is a normal, constructive practice. Norms and values are flexible. Monuments, made of unyielding metal, are not. The beliefs of the Dutch people have changed since the statues were erected. Therefore it makes sense to rethink statues as societies change.

Even beyond issues of colonialism and racism, statues might be seen as under threat. Boomgaard argues that many people nowadays associate statues of political figures with dictatorship. By their definition, statues put people on pedestals, creating a strong hierarchical dynamic. He suggests that people are growing less comfortable with this sort of thing. “We do have to question heroism […] and ask if we, as a 21st century society, want to put that kind of heroism in our central squares.” 

Because people will always be inclined to want figures to look up to, Zijlmans doubts that statues will ever go away. But she believes that monuments, those already existing and those yet to be made, should show more nuance. More importantly, they ought to reflect the diversity and democratization of modern society. With so few statues of women and non-white figures in the Netherlands, there is clearly much work to be done.


What to do?

Many ideas have been suggested for solving the problem of out-dated monuments, statues whose unambiguous symbolism no longer reflects the nuances of modern society. One idea is to simply add additional information at the base of each controversial statue, explaining, for example, the colonial crimes of Witte de With. Yet this doesn’t quite square with the symbolic language of monuments. Whatever the text says, the glorious image atop the plinth will loom larger. 

Another popular idea is to move statues to museums or to special parks where they can be properly contextualized. Or they could remain in squares, but be joined by new monuments depicting the kinds of marginalized people which have, to this point, not been immortalized in metal. They could also be simply destroyed, but this would raise concerns from the many people on both sides of the issue who worry about erasing history. 

One interesting idea, currently being played with in a few American cities, is to leave the statues as they are but allow activists to deface them as they please. This makes for a powerful image, one which beautifully reflects the pluralism of a multicultural democratic society. Less practical but just as symbolically satisfying might be to literally take the statues off their pedestals, to place them on the ground. If the statues are much larger than life-sized, they could be placed in holes so no one will have to look up at them. 

Any change will face criticism. It will not be easy, but it does seem that the times call for a reassessment of the country’s national icons. We should remember that this is not an exception, an outlier in history. It is rather the rule. Despite their cold metal constituents and immobility, statues have been and always will be re-assessed and altered by the living, changing societies which build them.