Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have a statue made of you? Unfortunately most people will never know, either because they are not considered worthy of a statue, or because they’re the kind of thing that tends to happen after you die. Well, if you are ever in Dumfries in southern Scotland, you can experience it for yourself with the DIY statue!
Situated near the Devorgilla Bridge over the River Nith, the DIY statue looks at first glance like a large, empty plinth. Look a little closer however, and there is a pair of shoe prints embedded in the top in front of the words ‘DIY STATUE’ and ‘DUMFRIES LOCAL HERO’ carved near the top. I was in Dumfries this summer with my parents, and when we found the DIY Statue I just had to give it a try. A man who was walking past as I did this gave me a cheer and a round of applause, which was a moment that was simultaneously lovely and highly embarrassing. The whole thing got me thinking about the nature of statues in public space, why we put them up, and how we interact with them.
Most statues are ignored by most people most of the time. If we pass a statue frequently it tends to fade into the background, and we stop noticing it, if we ever did in the first place. There are occasions where statues become the centre of attention, however. For example, statues have played an important role in the UK’s recent ‘culture wars’, with debates raging about what do about statues of people whose legacies we are no longer proud of (rightly, I think!). Perhaps the most well-known example of this in Edinburgh is the statue of Henry Dundas on a 45m tall plinth in St Andrew Square. As Home Secretary, Dundas argued against the abolition of the slave trade. Statues like the DIY statue encourage people to interact them without commemorating highly problematic people.
Statues are a reflection of who society deems are important. As such, they also reflect society’s prejudices. One of my favourite facts about Edinburgh (not because I like it, but because it’s outrageous) is there are more statues of named animals in the city than there are of women. Recent research by Art UK has shown that just 2% of named statues in the UK represent people of colour. The DIY statue can be representative of all the people of Dumfries in a way that most conventional statues are not.
Another interesting question that the DIY statue raises is what kinds of acts make a person worthy of a statue. Most named statues are of people who did remarkable things in the fields of business, politics, sport, or culture. For example there is a large statue of Robert Burns, the famous Scottish poet who lived in the town for a while, at the top of Dumfries High Street. Decisions about who ‘deserves’ a statue are not simple, uncontested things. As controversies surrounding some statues such as the Dundas memorial in Edinburgh demonstrate, these decisions can be argued against and even reversed. The DIY statue encourages us to think about the standards we use to define a ‘local hero’. Should it only be people who are rich and famous? Why can’t we recognise people who ‘just’ contribute to the local community? After everything that’s happened the last few years, I think we all deserve to be celebrated a little bit just for existing. Thanks to the DIY statue anyone who can climb onto the plinth (it isn’t particularly accessible) can be commemorated, even temporarily.
Even though they spend a lot of time being ignored by passersby and pooped on by birds, statues matter. The DIY statue may be just a fun piece of public art that encourages people to interact with public space, but I think it raises important questions about who we choose to commemorate and why. I haven’t been able to find out any information about the DIY statue, so if anyone knows when it was installed or whose idea it was, I would love to know!