Special thanks to Stephan Archibald, whose 1978 survey of ironworks in Halifax was a great resource for the following reflection. All quotes are taken from this article. Stephan Archibald, “Civic Ornaments: Ironwork in Halifax Parks,” Material Culture Review 5 (1978): pp. 1-11.
Commemoration can be hotly contested, especially in the form of public memorials and statues. Amidst this ideological battleground, we can begin to see core assumptions touted by the statue dissenters and the statue defenders. Chief among these assumptions is that memorials are constructed for memory. Meaning when a statue, commemoration, or monument is constructed, its primary function is to preserve for the public the memory of an event, person, or thing.
What is lost in this assumption are the swaths of memorials that decorate our towns and cities with very different purposes. Sometimes, commemoration takes a backseat to something more frivolous: beautification. Halifax is littered with memorials whose function upon construction was to make the city look nicer. A survey of Halifax’s ironwork monuments offers an excellent example of this.
In 1978, Stephan Archibald published a brief survey of six ironwork structures in Halifax public parks. All were memorials constructed in the late 1800s or early 1900s, but more importantly, “all were regarded… as civic ornaments, improvements to their surroundings.” Haligonians were deeply invested in beautifying and improving their parks. Cast iron structures were a great option for a city that wanted to beautify because it was accessible, cheap, and quickly manufactured, which all contributed to its immense popularity in the 19th century.
Some of these structures, such as the two pavilions in Point Pleasant Park and the Golden Gate on Young Avenue, were memorials to their donors. In both instances, money was donated with the explicit purpose of beautifying the park. The gates to the Public Gardens, on the other hand, were later designated as a memorial to the volunteers who served during the North-West Rebellions because a women’s society dedicated to commemorating the conflict had raised funds to help with the gates. The last two structures Archibald considered were the two fountains in the Public Gardens. They were both constructed to commemorate events, one Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and the other the Second Boer War.
Of these six structures, only one is a fully custom design, that being the Golden Gate. An informal competition was held to see who would design and cast the gates. The winning design came from the local Starr Manufacturing Company.
These gates are also one of the only structures considered by Archibald not produced by the prolific W. MacFarlane & Co. Company. MacFarlane was the most important manufacturer of ornamental ironwork in Scotland. Their products were shipped globally. The company advertised their products in extensive catalogues (much like the Sears catalogue), showcasing the variety of ironworks they could cast and ship. This is what made cast iron decoration so affordable: the casts are prefabricated and repeatable. For instance, you could find the iron pavilions in Point Pleasant Park anywhere in the world.
Customization was possible. For instance, the title “Public Gardens” was added to the gates of the Gardens. More extensively, it was requested that the Soldiers’ Memorial Fountain have a custom soldier placed atop the fountain instead of the advertised female figure. Funnily enough, five years later, the MacFarlane catalogue shows a soldier figure, seemingly identical to the custom Halifax example, demonstrating that after the Halifax order was cast, they added this new figure to their wider offerings.
In the face of current debates about commemoration, we have become presentism. We favour our current understandings of memorials over the interpretations of our forbearers. We have lost the ability to analyze memorials as multi-faceted and complicated.
This is not meant to undermine the criticisms of certain memorials which have long venerated acts of racism, sexism, and colonialism. Rather, by seeing statues as they were upon installation, we may be able to discuss their removal in less contentious terms. Some memorials were erected primarily to be beautiful, not as a deep ideological reflection of the time. If a memorial no longer makes our public spaces beautiful, for either visual or interpretative reasons, maybe it has stopped fulfilling its function. Through this lens, we may be able to transform the statue question from an ideological war to an aesthetic review.