Debate intensifies over fate of contested heritage - Museums Association

Debate intensifies over fate of contested heritage

The toppling of Colston has brought a new urgency to longstanding discussions over monuments in the public realm
A protester outside the Museum of the Home with the contested statue of Robert Geffrye in the background Photograph by Dean Ryan

Earlier this summer, long-simmering debates about how Britain deals with its difficult imperial history exploded into wider public consciousness when the statue of 18th-century Bristol slave trader Edward Colston was torn down by Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors and dumped in the city’s harbour. It was a moment that made explicit the links between public heritage and the wider fight against racial injustice.

That movement has taken on a fierce urgency since the killing of George Floyd in May by US police, amid the trauma of a global pandemic that has laid bare the extent of racial inequality. The Labour MP Diane Abbott recently said that it’s important not to get “bogged down in debates about statues” rather than very real, current issues of injustice that protestors are raising. But it is also becoming clear that institutions responsible for the care of heritage in the public realm can no longer hide from this confrontation – and that campaigners are no longer satisfied by half measures.

Mounting backlash

That change in mood has been apparent since Colston, as attention has turned to other contentious public heritage. There is a mounting backlash against the "overtly racist" Rex Whistler mural in Tate Britain's restaurant, which depicts enslaved black children on leashes, as well as other highly offensive racial caricatures.

Earlier this month, the institution updated the restaurant's page on its website after being criticised by the art critic duo The White Pube. A previous version of the page had described the dining room as the "most amusing restaurant in the world". Tate says it welcomes further discussion about the mural as part of a wider review of diversity in the public realm by the Mayor of London (see box below) - but this is unlikely to be enough to appease campaigners, who are demanding its removal.

Meanwhile a recent consultation by the Museum of the Home and Hackney Council into the future of a statue of Robert Geffrye, the founder of the 18th-century almshouses where the museum now sits, has led to an outcry that threatens to overshadow the museum’s imminent reopening.


Geffrye’s fortune was made through investments in the East India Company and the Royal African Company, which was involved in the transatlantic slave trade; the consultation showed that a majority of people living in Hackney want his statue to be taken down.

However, the museum’s trustees recently decided that the institution should instead “reinterpret and contextualise the statue where it is, to create a powerful platform for debate about the connection between the buildings and transatlantic slavery”.

“Feedback showed that what to do with the statue is a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions,” the museum said in a statement. “On balance the board has taken the view that the important issues raised should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change, along with better interpretation and conversation around the statue.”

The museum has been lauded by some in the heritage community for taking a “balanced approach” to a difficult issue. It echoes the advice recently published by Historic England that advocates the reinterpretation rather than removal of contested history.

Historic England statement on contested heritage

“We believe the best way to approach statues and sites which have become contested is not to remove them but to provide thoughtful, long-lasting and powerful reinterpretation, which keeps the structure’s physical context but can add new layers of meaning, allowing us all to develop a deeper understanding of our often difficult past.

“When challenging subjects like this arise we think it’s important to open up the conversation. We would welcome open discussions with local councils and communities about these issues.”

Read the full statement here

But the museum's announcement was met with shock and disbelief by local residents, coming at a particularly sensitive time when there is already huge anger and pain in the borough about the disproportionate toll that Covid-19 has taken on BAME communities there.


On 1 August members of the Hackney Stand up to Racism and Fascism group held a protest outside the museum calling on the trustees to reverse their decision. “After years of division and attacks by tabloids on asylum seekers and immigrants, what I think this has tapped into is people saying ‘enough is enough’,” says Sasha Simic, a spokesman for the group. “There’s been a shift.”

Many of the people who responded to the consultation are struggling to understand the museum’s reasoning, he says. “It’s a really odd statement from the trustees. They say we’re going to use it as a way of educating ourselves – but that doesn’t mean it has to stay up. It should be put in a corner of the museum with a description of his life and what he did.”

“We’re going to keep campaigning,” adds Simic. “The trustees are not very representative of Hackney and they don’t understand the genuine hurt that black people feel about this. We’re not going to go away.”

Public sentiment

The toppling of Colston could be seen as a cautionary tale about what can happen when institutions are seen to override public sentiment. In Bristol, however, the event appears to have brought some closure – and even a sense of relief – after what had been a long-running and fraught debate over the statue’s fate.

“The general feeling seems to be that it would have been preferable if it didn’t get to that point, but it has happened and we need to move forward,” says Ray Barnett, the head of collections at Bristol Museums. Barnett is currently working on a display of the statue that will be in place when the museums reopen in early autumn, followed by a more rounded exhibition in the longer term.

A historic photo of the statue of Edward Colston Image courtesy Bristol Archives

Colston has brought new insight into the question of what should be done with statues that are taken down – which, in the UK at least, had been largely theoretical up to now. Immediately afterwards, there was strong feeling in the heritage sector that museums were full enough already without having to become warehouses to now-discredited historical figures. But Barnett says that, among the city’s diverse communities, it was clear that people wanted Colston to be redisplayed – this time with his story told in full.


“I was surprised by how strong the view was that putting him into a museum was the right thing to do,” says Barnett. “Most people don’t want history to be hidden, they want history to be faced up to, and one way you can do that is to put it into context. That’s not something that can be done when it’s on a pedestal in the middle of the street.”

In July that pedestal was briefly occupied again by a statue of BLM protester Jane Reid, created by the artist Marc Quinn – but this was quickly taken down by the council. “The mayor wants people to take a breath and think about what happened, not a knee jerk response,” says Barnett, although Bristol Museums is also hoping to acquire the preliminary model of Quinn’s statue.

Barnett says it is essential for the museum to preserve Colston as the statue looked when it was raised from the river. Rather than the usual cleaning and repair, the challenge for conservators this time was to preserve the graffiti from the protest, which was in danger of washing off because the statue had been waxed. And the statue will no longer stand on a pedestal in the new display – a specially designed cradle is being made for it to lie in. It will be shown alongside placards gathered from the protest.

The event has highlighted for Barnett that the process of decolonisation is one that is constantly evolving. “I’ve been here 36 years and I’ve seen the different attempts we’ve made to tackle this history. This has been a real reminder that there’s a new generation coming through all the time – and the things you did 10 years ago are ancient history.”

The vandalism has more historic value than the object itself.

Temitope Ajileye, co-facilitator, Rhodes Must Fall

In Oxford, one of the original driving forces behind the movement to decolonise Britain’s heritage, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, has been reignited by the toppling of Colston. Temitope Ajileye, a co-facilitator of the group, has been organising regular protests against the statue of the imperialist former prime minister of southern Africa, Cecil Rhodes.

He says public reaction to the campaigners this year has been very different to when they started out in 2014. “There is definitely a different feeling in the city,” says Ajileye. “We’ve also seen that the comments by stakeholders are different. More people are speaking openly than we had five or six years ago.”

An oft-cited argument against removing statues like Rhodes is that it is not democratic for a small minority of protestors to decide on the fate of public monuments. Ajileye argues that the Rhodes Must Fall movement is about changing public opinion through democratic campaigning, rather than overriding it.

The Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel College, Oxford

Another common argument against removing statues of figures like Rhodes and Colston is that it amounts to erasing history. But Ajileye argues that statuary is often erected as propaganda and has little instrinsic historic value. As in the case of Colston, he points out that, in the many ex-Soviet countries that tore down their Communist-era statues, “the vandalism has more historic value than the object itself”.

There is a logical fallacy in allowing them to remain standing, he adds. “What I’ve watched people do often is look at their public monuments and say, ‘if these people have monuments then they can’t have been that bad to begin with’. So those statues are still doing their propaganda,” he says.

“In the case of Rhodes, at the time the college was being built, there were many opposing voices to the statue. But because money won out 100 years ago, we now say he was a man of his time, because those opposing voices were erased.

“In 50 years’ time, if we leave him up, people will think we were ok with it too.”

Reassessing heritage in the public realm

A number of councils, museums and universities have launched initiatives examining issues around slavery and decolonisation in their own histories and the heritage they care for.

London Mayor’s Office

The mayor has launched a commission to review diversity in the public realm, which will focus on increasing representation among BAME communities, women, the LGBTQ+ community and disability groups in the city’s statues, plaques and street names.

Glasgow University

Last year the university announced that it would pay £20m to fund a joint research centre at the University of the West Indies, part of a wider programme of restorative justice at the museum

Oxford University

After the fall of Colston, an independent commission was formed to examine the future of the Rhodes statue, which will hold a public consultation. The university’s Pitt Rivers Museum is also currently undertaking a wider programme of decolonisation and reconciliation.

Bristol City Council

A commission is undertaking a full reassessment of the history of slavery in Bristol, in consultation with the city’s communities. A database of the city’s statuary, monuments and street names is also being created.

National Museums Liverpool

The institution has appointed a historian in residence, Laurence Westgaph, to ensure that an understanding of the history and legacies of slavery is embedded across all of National Museums Liverpool’s venues.

Comments (1)

  1. Raj Pal says:

    Most of my generation, those of us who went to school (well, certain types of schools) in former colonies like India were taught about the men who helped to put “Great” into Britain. Among them, Darwin, Newton and Watt stood like giants; a sort of holy trinity. They were untouchable God like figures whose shit didn’t smell. And of course, we revered them. They were part of the curriculum we studied and in order to do well we had to learn “everything” about them. But, of course, not everything, as it turns out!

    As with all iconic figures of national myths we only knew the “good” things about them. The fact that Darwin’s ideas went on to be used to justify eugenics (we have a Galton bridge in Birmingham), racism, empire and the subjugation of “lesser races” (for their own benefit of course. Hence the white man carrying on his “civilising burden.) or that Watt, and many others of his generation and background, were heavily involved in and enriched by slavery, were never part of our learning. And neither was it here. It’s not that people, scholars and historians in particular, didn’t know about it; just that it wasn’t seen as worthy of attention to discuss such matters lest we sully the reputation of these great men. Today, we know better. What, then, to do?

    I don’t think we can wish these individuals away from our public life. There is not a blanket approach to these issues. It is also about seeing the bigger picture and the need to build alliances in the campaign against deep rooted and systemic racism and discrimination that, as the figures for casualties of Coronavirus show, mar the daily lives of black and other non white communities and well as those of the most poorest and deprived white ones. Nuance and the need to understand complexity are very important. Boulton and Watt, for instance, are not just dead white men; they are an integral part of the history and sense of identity of my home city of Birmingham. Their statue occupies a prominent place in the center of the city. I do not want that statue to be removed. For to do so has the potential of being exploited by those committed to sowing discord among those, white and non white alike, who otherwise have much in common and who need to be allies in addressing issues that affect our life chances; literally life and death.

    Each case has to be seen on merit. Rhodes and Coulston cannot be seen the same as Watt. They contributed nothing to the growth of ideas that have benefited us beyond getting personally rich on the backs of millions who were massacred, enslaved, transported and displaced. The “philanthropy” and scholarships set up their name are a poor attempt at laundering their contemptible reputations. Only xenophobes and racists defend them. Watt, on the other hand, benefitted from slavery BUT was also a great inventor whose work changed the world. In the light of what we know about him, I would suggest that places like Soho House in Birmingham, home of Watt’s partner Boulton, and other similar places bring in refreshed and more engaging forms of interpretation. That, after all, is the fundamental purpose of museums. The public offer, in terms of educational and group visits, websites and the rest should also reflect these newer narratives. Ideally, our national curriculum too should reflect that fuller and more accurate picture of figures like Watt. But rather than wait for government to act (as useful as waiting for Godot!), as the example of Colonial countryside program has shown, there is much that schools, community groups, heritage organisations and others can do to enlarge the pool of knowledge in ways that makes us see figures like Watt in their fuller complexity and context. I don’t want to “loose” Watt. But I, and no doubt many others, want to see him as the real, complex figure who was capable of great scientific advances and yet whose fortune and success was also based on the brutal horrors of the slave trade. This approach also allows us to tell the more nuanced and truer story about what lay beneath the “greatness” of Britannia as she navigated the waves. It also turns the tables by using some of the the very same objects that have buttressed traditional narratives of British “greatness” and exceptionalism to create new ones which are closer to the truth and reflective of the world we live in. That way we ALL benefit.

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