More statues of living people than dead erected in UK, study finds

Portrait Bench – Lenny Henry, Ellie Simmons and Jane Sixsmith 2023
Portrait Bench – Lenny Henry, Ellie Simmons and Jane Sixsmith 2023 Copyright Sculptors: Katy Hallett and Nick Hallett, Image credit: Sustrans/Mark Radford
By Jonny Walfisz
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A UK study found that more statues of living people were made than dead for the first time this century.

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It’s a win for the living over the dead in British sculpture. 

While most minds will jump to long past political and military characters like Nelson and Churchill when it comes to the UK’s statues, a new report revealed more statues of living people were erected last year.

Art UK published an annual review of public sculptures and this year’s report had a few interesting details. 94 new installations were made in the UK in 2023, including sculptures of beloved writer Agatha Christie, national treasure Lenny Henry, and commemorations to Windrush and the victims of Covid-19.

The largest proportion of sculptures weren’t of people at all though, with 31% (or 29 artworks) dedicated to the environment and nature.

Just 18% of new artworks were statues dedicated to named women and men.

When analysing the data, the BBC noted that more living people than dead were among those new statues dedicated to specific individuals. This is the first time that’s happened in the 21st century, Art UK confirms, and the cultural charity notes it’s due to a nationwide effort to celebrate people of colour.

Windrush Sculpture in Essex
Windrush Sculpture in EssexSculptors: Jade Pearl (b.1994) and Liam Hopkins (b.1985), Image credit: Tracy Jenkins/Art UK

Over a third of the statues erected in 2023 were of Black people. While this is a promising statistic, there’s still a long way to go with a measly 2% of total UK statues dedicated to ethnic minorities. As of the 2021/2 census, 24% of Brits are of an ethnicity other than White British.

Of the new statues, the people honoured included 24-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason who won the 2016 BBC Young Musician Award and was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2020. A statue of Kanney-Mason was put up in his hometown of Nottingham.

In Birmingham, a steel sculpture was unveiled of TV star Lenny Henry, who became one of the first mainstream Black British comedians during the 80s.

Decolonialising German sculpture

Over in Germany, new statues have been causing a different kind of stir.

The Berlin Palace (Berliner Schloss) has had eight new statues added to its roof, each of an Old Testament prophet. Overlooking the city centre, the Berlin Palace was resurrected in 2002 after its destruction by the Soviet-led East German government.

While the new version of the Palace was intended to subvert the original’s nationalist symbolism – by keeping its east face modernist and housing a collection of non-European art that is publicly funded – the decoration of the rest of the exterior was funded privately.

Berlin Palace
Berlin PalaceCanva

This has allowed an increasingly Christian nationalist approach to seep into the design, accused historian Jürgen Zimmerer. “It appears that we are dealing with a targeted infiltration of the Berlin palace by fundamentalist rightwingers who want to turn it into symbol of a Christian and thereby ‘white’ ethnic Germany,” the professor of global history at the University of Hamburg told The Guardian.

Much like in the UK, decolonialising public sculpture is a problem all across Germany. In 2023, we reported on the way a 2021 competition to alter a statue of Otto Von Bismarck in Hamburg was scrapped.

The 34-metre-tall statue towers over the Hamburg skyline and is an uncomfortable reminder of the imperial days of Germany. The competition to “to develop ideas for recontextualising the monument” was scrapped after the jury members complained about the requirement to not alter or attach anything to the original monument.

“It’s absurd that the institution for the protection of monuments defines the limits of the decolonisation of a monument, because that automatically means that the imperial setup of the monument is perpetuated in eternity,” Zimmerer told Euronews Culture.

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