‘Virtutis Praemium: The reward of virtue’: an art installation with banners, flags, buntings and postcards by Sheefali Asija

Celebrating the achievements of a society has traditionally has meant, amongst other things, placing statues of military heroes on stone pedestals and dotting them around the grand squares and broad avenues near the centres of state power. I have often been taken aback by just how many dead generals and admirals are immortalised forever in bronze, elevated above the ordinary citizenry atop on plinths and columns populating the area around Whitehall in London. 

More often than not these were the heroes of Empire. Men (because they nearly all were) of destiny. The imperial conquerors, raiders and plunderers – Clive of India, Henry Havelock, Charles Napier, James Outram, Kitchener and so on. These individuals displayed great military success and cunning which thus enabled them to, in the case of Clive, make the first major strides towards Britain’s Imperial future in India and then, in the case of Havelock, Napier and Outram hold that Empire together during the ‘Indian Mutiny’/‘The First War of Independence’ (depending on what side you were on/are on still today). 

I was intrigued by the idea of how a society determines what behavior is worthy of such esteem – essentially what it considers ‘virtuous’ – that the individual displaying said behavior is immortalized both in terms of material (bronze or stone) and elevation (aloft, above us less virtuous mortals). And how this determination changes over time. What kind of achievements are the results of what we now consider virtuous behavior? I think that embracing humanism, recognizing the power of conditional optimism and deploying the vast arsenal of tools and techniques derived from our scientific understanding of the world has led to the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. The extraordinary improvements in child mortality, the spread of literacy, the moving of billions of people out of abject poverty, the eradication of terrible diseases such as smallpox and polio. These achievements are the result of virtuous behavior. They are the reward of virtue. But they are achievements that will not be sustainable if we do not continue to behave virtuously. 

It therefore seemed logical to me to look to the monumental, the massive as a means of communication. I used the model of heraldic banners and flags as a practical way to achieve the monumental but instead of the emblems of a great family with battle honours I placed infographics that illustrated the ‘battle honours’ of science. Virtutis Premium – the Reward of Virtue.