Colston Avenue and the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol (undated)

'Historic moment': M Shed to collect artefacts from protest that toppled Colston statue

Simon Stephens, 08.06.2020
Heritage community reacts to fall of statue dedicated to 17th-century slave trader
Museum and heritage professionals have been reacting to the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being pulled down and thrown into the harbour during an anti-racism protest in Bristol this weekend. 

Campaigners have been calling for the removal of the statue for many years. Colston is believed to have helped oversee the transportation into slavery of an estimated 84,000 Africans between 1672 and 1689. The 5.5-metre bronze statue had stood on Colston Avenue since 1895.

Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, wrote on Twitter: “We're preserving #BlackLivesMatter signs left at the former site of the #Colston statue so we can tell the story of this historic moment for our city at @mshedbristol.” 

Historic England said it did not believe the statue must be returned to its former position, and called for a public conversation to decide what should happen to it. A statement from the organisation said: "Whilst we do not condone the unauthorised removal of a listed structure, we recognise and understand the emotion and the hurt that public historical commemoration can generate and we encourage Bristol City Council to engage in a city wide conversation about the future of the statue. 

"We are here to offer guidance and support but believe the decision is best made at a local level - we do not believe it must be reinstated."

Laura Pye, the former head of culture for Bristol City Council, tweeted: “I don’t believe this is erasing history, it’s making it! #BlackLivesMatter.” 

Pye is now the director of National Museums Liverpool, where she recently wrote a blog about the killing of George Floyd by US police in Minneapolis. In the blog, she wrote: “Our International Slavery Museum informs and helps visitors understand the history and legacies of the transatlantic slavery, such as racism, hate crime, and issues of freedom and injustice, prejudice and ignorance – so many of the elements that unfortunately still prevail in 2020.” 



Historian and broadcaster David Olusoga has argued for many years that the statue should be removed. He wrote in The Guardian: “The fact that a man who died 299 years ago is today on the front pages of most of Britain’s newspapers suggests that Bristol has not been brilliant at coming to terms with its history. Despite the valiant and persistent efforts of campaigners, all attempts to have the statute peacefully removed were thwarted by Colston’s legion of defenders.  

“Now is not the time for those who for so long defended the indefensible to contort themselves into some new, supposedly moral stance, or play the victim. Their strategy of heel-dragging and obfuscation was predicated on one fundamental assumption: that what happened on Sunday would never happen. 

 "They were confident that black people and brown people who call Bristol their home would forever tolerate living under the shadow of a man who traded in human flesh, that the power to decide whether Colston stood or fell lay in their hands. They were wrong on every level.”  

Politicians have also voiced their opinions on the statue. Home secretary Priti Patel said the removal was "utterly disgraceful". Labour leader Keir Starmer said that while it was wrong for protesters to pull down the statue,  the monument should never have been there in the first place. Starmer told LBC radio that the Colston statue should have been “brought down properly, with consent”, and placed in a museum.


Comments

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12.06.2020, 10:32
History exists in the now. We are not passive witnesses. We have choices. If it matters to retain these monuments why have they not long had 'labels/interpretation' for the passerby that talk about racism, exploitation, power and control. On Monday Ben Okri said "Racism is a failure of humanity. It is a failure to be human." Museums are about people and fail if they are not human.
09.06.2020, 23:33
Quite understand the protesters stance as this Colston saga has been going on for many years. I am not sure if this was suggested, but a statue of equal or greater size beside or near Edward Colston representing African enslavement would have been a step forward.
09.06.2020, 19:07
Similar statues that commemorate men like Colston are all over the country and it worries me that these men get to be glorified in such dramatic fashion and hold such prominent positions in our public places (the statue to Henry Dundas for example stands at 150 feet tall in St Andrews Square in Edinburgh). However, I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s dangerous to erase history - although I do agree with Pye's comment that these acts are of course history in the making as well. We need to shift our collective perspective on objects such as this and create new (and noticeable) plaques and interpretation. When you start destroying or erasing uncomfortable and painful history it has the very real potential to repeat itself. We know that there are plenty of uncomfortable objects held in museum collections and some of the objects on display that don’t have the blatant appearance or outward connotations of a racist/colonial past are lacking honest interpretation and that is harmful. There are also objects that are blatantly racist and intolerant that many people would feel 'discomfort' in seeing and that many museums hide away in storage. What purpose are they serving? What is the point of preserving them? We have this need to preserve and document the history of humanity, but these objects that are very real and very painful are hidden away because of this persistent fear that museum visitors will get uncomfortable seeing them or be forced to think about the awful acts that white people committed against people of colour. It is time to face that discomfort head on and all of these objects, big and small, have the ability to inform people of the massive issues in our past and current society in a very tangible way.
The Colston statue should be placed in one of the Bristol Museums venues and appropriate interpretation placed at its former site.
09.06.2020, 12:46
The pulling down of the Colston statue in Bristol is the culmination of a prolonged campaign to have it removed or reinterpreted. Community consultation was sought and not listened to. The statue has been in place for many years and more was achieved, in terms of educating people on the legacy of the British slave trade in Bristol, in the twenty minutes it took to pull it down than was achieved in the entire time it has been in place.
09.06.2020, 12:28
The events of the past few weeks have been a key moment of reflection for the UK museum and heritage sectors, one that I believe will have long lasting (and hopefully positive) outcome. I hope that we can move beyond trying to justify the transatlantic slave trade under the nostalgic maxim of it was acceptable at the time. The trafficking and sale of human beings is wrong, and it always has been.
Anonymous
09.06.2020, 08:52
Violence in any protest is not excusable. I am a Bristolian, born and bred, we were taught about the dreadful activities of the slave trade and of its impact. I have a text book from 1945 that quotes 'The story of Bristol's slave trade is one of which we are not proud, although we realise that our standards of morality have greatly changed'. Perhaps Mr Olusoga would do well to consider his arguments before criticising, what next, wipe areas of history from archives because it deals with horrors?
10.06.2020, 14:44
No one is suggesting that we erase an archive, in fact the opposite is being suggested. That MShed collects items from this protest and creates a long lasting record that continues to teach us about the history of Bristol. The statue that was torn down wasn't an archive, it wasn't contributing to the education of people who saw it. The nature of a statue such as this, is that it innately glorifies the subject and we shouldn't have to squint a plaque that explains in the metaphorical (and actual)small print that we condemn the actions of a slave trader.
08.06.2020, 22:12
It is always wrong to judge the actions or behaviours of historical characters by the moral standards of the present day. The past is a foreign country. Attitudes were very different on all sorts of issues. Most of us go with the flow of contemporary values. Take child labour for example. We would regard it as abhorrent to send kids up chimneys but in the moral climate of the past the vast majority would have accepted that as normal. Few people in any age step out of line - the majority go along with the prevailing view. People regarded as good in their own era may well have done things that we would consider bad or wicked today. Who is to say what might change in the future? Can we, today, predict what aspects of 21st Century British moral values might be condemned as shocking in 300 years? Alas we cannot. So when we as museum people look at people in the past we should ask if they were good people by the moral standards of the era in which they lived, not whether they were guilty of failing to be time-travellers and understanding our present moralities.
09.06.2020, 16:48
There is a difference between judging the events of the past through our own current moral values and continuing to display in a public square a statue to an individual who was involved in activities that people have condemned as immoral and unjust since at least the late 18th century, if not earlier. In a history book, you can provide the context,question the evidence and the motivations and make comparisons; in contrast you cannot enter into a debate with a statue. It is there and it's usually bigger than you.

Statues are not just historic monuments, they are symbols that embody specific messages and therefore always run the risk of being toppled.

I would recommend listening to David Olusoga's talk to the Hay Festival in 2018; so much food for thought, especially in relation to taking pride or feeling shame about aspects of our history. As for our behaviour today, there is much that will be condemned by future generations, we can be sure of that, if nothing else.
10.06.2020, 09:21
I should have written: In history books and museums.... (Sorry, I forgot the obvious location!)
09.06.2020, 13:46
Hi Martin, you are right to say we regard certain elements of the past as abhorrent - should not be building statues to glorify those, wouldn't you agree? Would you tolerate a statue glorifying child labour, only because it's something that 'happened in the past'? Would you tolerate a statue of a Nazi general, because 'our morals now are different'? If your answer is no, then you should ask yourself why you're ok with tolerating a statue glorifying a slave trader.
Anonymous
09.06.2020, 23:28
Agree. Statue of Hitler would be swiftly removed. The narrative would never be for him "well the past is the past, let put everything in its historical context.
09.06.2020, 08:55
Martin, absolutely agree with you on this. What next, tear down statues of George Washington because he owned slaves? Not forgive Germans and the Japanese for the two World Wars?