Statues are not a neutral narration of complex events

World View: The decision to build a public monument is always a political act

Set off from Avenue Bugeaud, in the heart of the embassy belt in the western 16th arrondissement of Paris, and head east. This elegant street, a short hop from the Élysée Palace, is named after Thomas Robert Bugeaud, France's first governor-general of Algeria, whose name is synonymous with crop-burning, the demolition of villages and les enfumades, a long-honed technique for asphyxiating Algerian rebels by lighting fires at the entrances to caves or dwellings.

From Avenue Bugeaud, take the Métro southeast towards the Luxembourg Gardens. At 2 Avenue de l'Observatoire you'll find a building belonging to the École Nationale d'Administration, a finishing school for the French elite. For more than half of the 20th century this was the École Coloniale, where future colonial administrators were sent to be trained. The names of colonial heroes were once etched into the stone façade, but they were sandblasted in the 1980s and no trace remains.

Historical memory is not static but, like the writing of history itself, fluid and evolving and subject to constant re-evaluation

Get back on the Métro and continue southeast. Strolling around Square Van-Vollenhoven, in a residential part of the 12th arrondissement, you might notice something missing: in the early 1980s, persons unknown blew up a statue of Jean-Baptiste Marchand, a colonial-era military officer who commanded the French expeditionary force in the late 19th century. Now continue in the same direction: near the end of Métro line 1 you'll come upon the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration, a fine museum on the history of migration. What won't be immediately apparent is that the building was previously home to the Colonial Museum, a celebration of France's imperial project. It was once adorned by a huge bas-relief showing the products that the colonies gave France: coffee, sugar, nickel, rubber. A mural inside told visitors what France supposedly gave the colonies in return: law and order, education, justice.

What all of this does is remind us that recriminations over public monuments are nothing new, but also that historical memory is not static but rather, like the writing of history itself, fluid and evolving and subject to constant re-evaluation in light of new information and ideas. Those random snapshots from Paris also encapsulate the three broad approaches to problematic statues and monuments: leave them up, tear them down or modify them. The latter of these – modification – was what the authorities in Oxford had in mind when they proposed making changes to a statue of Cecil Rhodes so as to "do justice to the complexity of the debate" around the British imperialist (one suggestion was the construction of a second Rhodes statue that could be defaced with graffiti). But in the past week, spurred by the Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the toppling of a statue of the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, the debate has settled on one question: should statues stand in perpetuity no matter how objectionable or loathsome the person they memorialise?

To many, toppling a monument amounts to an erasure of history. A monument does not necessarily imply that we endorse its subject, this argument goes, and removal if anything gives us licence to forget uncomfortable realities we have a duty to confront. If we start with Colston, where do we stop?

My sense is that this implies for statues a role they do not fulfil – a 20-foot slab of stone plonked on a busy intersection is not a particularly useful or nuanced educational tool – while denying the role they do have, which is to legitimise or signal approval for the values they represent. To give racists or mass murderers a pass because they were “of their time” is not only an insult to their victims; it also ignores those who resisted or challenged their ideas.

Statues are not a neutral narration of complex events. The decision to build one is not an act of historiography, like sifting through the archives or producing a monograph. To build one is a political act, and so is tearing it down. That's particularly true of monuments to events, including American slavery and European colonialism, that took place, historically speaking, yesterday. Tell a black teenager who has to walk past a statue of Robert E Lee in Richmond, Virginia, that it's all in the past.

The French historian Pierra Nora popularised the concept of "sites of memory" to describe the symbolic components – museums, monuments, events, flags or artworks – of a community's shared experience. If statues are a site of collective remembrance, then we should take on board the insights of cognitive psychologists, who say that recalling the past is a dynamic, shifting process that turns as much on our notions of the future as our grasp of the past.

The statue we pass every day, and sometimes barely notice, is less a reminder of how we got here than a declaration of where we want to go.