This is actually like something from a Monty Python movie. You can imagine the scene, where the angry mob is looking for something to burn, or tear down, or stone to death, and fixates on an innocent statue. Only to find, a little later, that they had got the wrong target.
Anyway, the Shelbourne has egg on its façade this morning, thanks in no small part to the work of journalists like Ronan McGreevy in the Irish Times, who pointed out that the statues were not, in fact, slaves:
The owners of the Shelbourne Hotel are to reinstall four statues which were removed in the mistaken belief that two of them were representations of slave women.
They were removed in July by hotel management, citing the Black Lives Matter movement and its focus on the legacy of slavery.
Hotel management believed that two of the statues depicted Nubian slave princesses, Nubia being a rival kingdom to ancient Egypt. The other two statues represent Egyptian princesses.
Art historian Kyle Leyden has said the original catalogue from which the four statues were ordered clearly label them not as slaves, but as Egyptian and Nubian women. Mr Leyden said the architect who designed the Shelbourne facade, John McCurdy, would have ordered the statues from the catalogue, which was published in the late 1850s.
Dublin City Council, to its credit, took the hotel to task over the decision to take the statues down, pointing out that the hotel had effectively vandalised a listed building. Faced with the fact that they were wrong on the merits, and the ire of local Government, the hotel has decided to conduct a somewhat undignified retreat and plonk the statues back where they came from.
What’s interesting about this story isn’t the statues themselves, so much as the mindset that their removal reveals. The fact is that there was no complaint about them, and nobody had asked for them to come down. What the hotel engaged in, in effect, was a pre-emptive act of woke vandalism in the hope of looking good to progressive American (and Irish) customers.
The message was simple: “Look at us, taking down these statues, because we care”.
To some extent, it didn’t really matter what the statues were actually depicting. It was more important to consider what an uneducated observer might think they were depicting. It was the modern equivalent of some prudish person in Victorian-era Florence wrapping a cloth around Michelangelo’s David to protect public morals and decency.
It wasn’t that the statues might be racist – it was that some people might think that they were racist. In other words, reality was much less important to the hotel than someone’s hypothetical imagination.
The good news is, though, that this might be a lesson for the next person, or persons, who decide to take a hammer and chisel to some part of the nation’s heritage.
Anyway, as we noted here before: If the Shelbourne wants to tackle the monuments to slavery in its midst, there is one thing that it could do:
The Shelbourne is named, after all, for William Petty, the second earl of Shelbourne, who was British Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783, a period during which slavery was perfectly legal in the British Empire, and during which Petty’s government profited from it. Surely the hotel itself is a monument to slavery, much more so than the statues that have just been removed?
They won’t be changing the name any time soon, though, because that might cost them brand recognition. Taking down statues is easy. Making that kind of meaningful change is, well, harder.