(I wrote this for the Express, where it appeared on Saturday 14 June. I though I’d share it again here.)
It turns out I was a neighbour of Robert Milligan’s, although until this last week I would have been hard put to point him out to you. But you know him already, right? You’d see him outside the Museum of London Docklands. Tall bloke. Scottish. Little pigtail. Slave-owner.
And now, just like Bristol’s Edward Colston, gone.
I’ve worked in the arts all my life, and the notion of the removal of any kind of art, and all the issues that raises of censorship and faddy political correctness are matters I find difficult and troubling and confusing. But not in this case.
I must have walked past Robert Milligan dozens of times. If I noticed him at all, it would only have been as yet another statue of an old white bloke, with a truly tragic example of greengrocer’s apostrophe in its inscription. It wasn’t even a good piece of art (so few of these statues are), and looked nothing like portraits of the man himself, in all his pouchy thin-lipped pugnacity. No-one seems to have much cared for it, ever; it was shoved around three times to different sites. Had I been a schoolchild from a BAME background, as are so many here in Tower Hamlets, I imagine (and all I, white and middle class, can do is imagine) the statue of an old white bloke would have registered even less with me – that is, unless I knew who he was and what he had done. Then I might well have asked myself what, as I was here, he was doing there. I might have wanted to know why his life was celebrated, while the lives of those he had enslaved, at least until you got into the Museum itself, were completely invisible. And I might have wondered whether, in these new times of Covid-19 and Clap for the NHS and the appalling murder of George Floyd, something ought not to be done about his gurning presence.
Well, now it has been, and I’m glad. I’m glad those questions are now being asked at an elected level, and I’m glad Milligan was removed not by a crowd of protesters but by community decree. I hope his statue, and Colston’s, find new homes where they can be used to continue the conversation around all these difficult and troubling and confusing questions; and I hope the site where Milligan stood is used for new and better art, that responds to the whole, entire history of the Isle of Dogs and all its peoples. The reasons for Colston’s and Milligan’s statues are part of why they had to go, and now, truly, part of history itself, but I can’t find any part of me that thinks removing them was censorship. It is simply doing the right thing. It is, if you like, something as simple as good taste.
Image from the Evening Standard.