When out and about in a city one of my favourite things to do is to look up above the zoetrope of coffee shops, high street shops, coffee shops… If you’ve ever walked along Newcastle’s Northumberland Street, you may have noticed the ornately pargetted upper of Moss Bros. Or maybe the shiny new Samsung shop a little further down the street? Look a little higher and you’ll see four famous Novacastrians. That means folk born in Newcastle to you and me.
Unlike the historical characters they portray, it’s hard to describe these pintsized statues as larger than life. Their recent restoration is noteworthy, appearing smoothed over, as if completely resurfaced in cement. Looking closer, you’ll see the pages of Thomas Bewick’s books have more definition. Harry Hotspur’s newly matte armour seems denser. Roger Thornton’s purse a little fuller. John Marley’s hat is narrower, his shoulders scraped clean of the moss that grew upon his cape. I will miss that most.
No doubt a necessary step in the conservation of the building’s façade, this has led me to some interesting thoughts on the upkeep of the artworks I am currently working with, manuscripts and other museum objects. At what point does the object being restored cease to be the original object anymore, simply becoming an assemblage of contemporary repair?
I also have wondered this about paintings. While a good clean can unfog the image or even reveal some exciting new element, at what point do we put down the paint brush and resist filling in the cracks? Just what it is it that we gain from looking at artworks, museum objects or manuscripts in the flesh? There’s a strong sense that we must preserve what history we are fortunate enough to still have. But that also suggests somehow that history ended a while back and that we are merely maintaining the stock of history we have hold of. That we're somehow separate from it.
Further afield another artwork demonstrates an interesting way of seeing this subject. Around twenty eight statues were cast from the original bronze of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’. One was housed in the Cleveland Museum of Art and in 1970, dramatically blown off its plinth by a bomb. The statue lost his lower leg and foot, the bronze torn up like shrapnel. Irreparable, the museum decided to lift the statue back above the steps, a defiant reminder of their motto to be for the benefit of all the people forever.
Following the attack, ‘The Thinker’ now looks down contemplatively on his missing limbs. In keeping him that way, there is an acceptance that not only has history happened, it is still happening right now and we should be cautious of airbrushing too much of it out, restoring or 'unpeopling' our objects to the point we have nothing to learn from them.
By contrast, an alternative example are the multiple statues of colonialists which stand on plinths in cities, lording it over well-kept gardens in the UK. How can we keep these larger than life symbols of slavery, hatred and control in public spaces? These three-dimensional idols can certainly serve no public good, upholding the same positions of command they once did. We must interrogate the very presence of these statues, the reverence and respect such monuments confer upon figures of unethical and wicked character. They do not belong in our streets. They belong in discourse: queried and taken down, the record set straight and not in stone.