I-cone-oclastic cone-spiracies in Glasgow. Or, should the Duke of Wellington have a traffic cone on his head?

I very much enjoyed the STV news item last week, about Glasgow City Council’s plans to thwart the placing of traffic cones on the statue of the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square. It seems that the City Council’s plans have, themselves, been thwarted, and that the traffic cone has now become an important element of Glasgow’s heritage!

Glasgow City Council had put in a planning application to raise the statue by doubling the size of the granite plinth on which it stood – to make it beyond the reach of all but the most determined of would-be saboteurs. Apparently, it costs £100 to take the cone off each time, and Historic Scotland, among others, were keen to maintain the integrity of the statue. However, a Facebook page supporting the traffic cone soon attracted more than 65,000 ‘likes’, and it seems that the City Council has now backed down, thereby tacitly recognising ‘the cone’ as being a valuable item of Glasgow heritage.

In the STV interview, the ‘case-for-the-cone’ rested on the twin notions of ‘democracy’ and ‘economics’. First, the supporters of the Facebook page represented “The Voice of the People” and “The People of Glasgow”, while the City Council’s decision was taken “without cone-sultation”. Secondly, the £65,000 cost of the plinth-work was viewed as a poor decision in a time of austerity and increasing homelessness and poverty in Glasgow, while the cone was seen as a distinctive icon, which attracted economic benefits: people will not buy T-shirts of the Duke of Wellington without a traffic cone on his head!

This event certainly displays the power of social media. I have said before how that it is blogs, tweets and other digital realms that will be key in informing the material and experiential basis of our society’s future heritage; or ‘prospective memory’ (Harvey 2008: 33). Rather than being totally driven by elite artistic attitudes and outlined by the ‘expert voice’ (of planners and professionals), such an occasion tends to point towards the voices of other people – of a decidedly non-elite, everyday and even marginalised constituency. The Royal Exchange Square is a public space, and the practices, attitudes and experiences of many different publics ought to be taken into account in its management. This seems something to be celebrated. However, to claim that 65,000 ‘likes’ on a Facebook page (which, I guess, could be ‘liked’ from anywhere on earth) represents ‘The Voice of the People’, or even ‘The Voice of Glasgow’ would seem to be stretching things beyond a rhetorical breaking point. I am not sure that Glasgow City Council, as an elected and representative body, ought to ‘Consult The People’ on every planning decision they take – but then I am also not sure that, from an ‘artistic’ point of view, the statue would ‘look right’ if the granite plinth on which it sits were to be doubled in size. Perhaps the keeping of the cone can be viewed as being more faithful to notions of heritage preservation – materially, artistically, experientially and in practice – than the raising of the plinth?

The donning of a traffic cone is just the most recent stage of the life-history of the Duke of Wellington’s memorial. No monument remains as a stable entity, and one of the most potent ways of making a mark is through the transgression of existing tropes of inflexible ambitions of ‘preservation’. Such practices of transgression have a socially meaningful heritage. Indeed, from Reformation zealots, through Civil War puritans, such iconoclastic (or i-cone-oclastic) practices have a long history, worthy of commemoration. One might argue that the apparent ‘vandalism’ of statues can help to maintain their relevance in society – the Duke of Wellington perhaps now has more value and meaning, to locals and visitors alike, with a traffic cone on his head than without.

Harvey, D.C. (2008) ‘A history of heritage’, in B. Graham and P. Howard (eds) Research Companion to Heritage and Identity (Ashgate; Aldershot), pp. 19-36.