Past tense - Museums Association

Past tense

Tokenistic gestures are not enough to tackle colonial legacies, says Errol Francis
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Errol Francis
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The statue of Edward Colston has been on display at M Shed since being retrieved from Bristol harbour Bristol Museums

It is more than a year since the murder of George Floyd – the atrocity that sparked global protests against the way Black and other racialised communities are treated by criminal justice systems in countries that style themselves as “leaders of the free world”.  

Fuelled by the iniquitous impact of the pandemic, what started out as a protest over the criminal justice system in the US quickly developed into an international demonstration against not only criminal justice and penal systems, but the whole institutional structure of neoliberal societies, where white supremacy is embedded into the DNA of institutions and government at every level of society. 

Museums had been mostly exempted from this critique, yet the protests quickly turned to heritage: what we mean by it, what we choose to remember and to whom it speaks. The question of what connection there is between museums and racialised violence became critical.  

A debate had been simmering for some time about “contested heritage”, the continued celebration of the dead white men  who enslaved Africans as chattel and seized their cultural assets, and how should we tell the story of colonialism and imperialism through the objects in our national collections.

In the UK, this came to a head in Bristol, which became an epicentre of protest when the statue of the city’s first mayor, Edward Colston, an MP and member of the Royal African Company, was torn down and tossed into the harbour – the same port through which thousands of enslaved African people traded by Bristol merchants passed during the period of transatlantic slavery.  

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Heritage institutions in the UK seemed to compete with themselves to post statements saying how they “stand in solidarity with the Black British community”, and Bristol was no exception. Mayor Marvin Rees said: “This is not just an American problem. It is not just an issue with the US criminal justice system. It reflects a systematic inequality that is prevalent across all major institutions and in countries around the world.”  

Bristol also reiterated its commitment to scrutinising and decolonising its historic buildings and collections, and developing a digital offer that would help people access accurate stories about the city’s history.  

Lack of coherent agenda 

Yet there is a feeling that these statements did not go far enough and only drew attention to the city’s lack of a coherent agenda for equality, diversity and inclusion. They also highlighted an apparent complicity with colonial violence in the seizing of cultural assets such as the Benin bronzes, the restitution of looted cultural property in Bristol Museums’ collections and a failure to address inclusion and diversity in their workforce and audience engagement.  

Soon after this momentous event and the statements that followed, the arts and education charity Culture& worked with the Black South West Network to deliver a series of workshops with Bristol Museums to explore the issues that had been highlighted by the protests in terms of the need to diversify the workforce, open up interpretations of heritage that are more inclusive, and curate programmes that attract audiences who are profoundly alienated by the dominant cultural narrative presented by museums.  

Following its retrieval from Bristol harbour, the Colston statue went on display at the city’s local history museum, M Shed, in May this year. Conservators stabilised the paint that the protestors sprayed on to the statue and placards from the protest were displayed alongside it.

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Residents have been invited to take part in a survey to decide its future. The Colston Statue: What next? display is a partnership between M Shed and the We Are Bristol History Commission, which was set up in September 2020 by Mayor Rees after the pulling down of the statue. 

The display was an interesting development that probably conforms to the government’s “retain and explain” policy – but does it go far enough? 

Before it was overtaken by Liverpool, Bristol was the UK’s main participant in and beneficiary from transatlantic slavery, and the wealth amassed from these activities is still apparent today. While there was an attempt by the ill-fated British Empire and Commonwealth Museum to address this history between 2002 and 2008, criticism remains that the story of Bristol’s involvement in slavery and colonialism is poorly told by its museums.  

The Benin bronze – one of the most infamous examples of looted colonial heritage, acquired by the genocidal punitive raid on the kingdom of Benin in 1897 – that Bristol Museum has held since 1935 is still in its possession.  

In March 2020, prince Edun Akenzua of the Royal Court of Benin called on Bristol City Council to be the first place in the western world to return a Benin bronze and, at the time, the council said it would think about it. Sadly, the prince’s call has yet to be actioned.  

In March this year, the University of Aberdeen became the first British institution to announce the return of a Benin bronze, after a review found the item had been acquired in an “extremely immoral” manner.

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Berlin’s Ethnological Museum at the Humboldt Forum, meanwhile, has promised to start returning its trove of Benin bronzes to Nigeria next year. The museum is to send back about 500 of the 90,000-plus brass, bronze, and ivory objects stolen by British soldiers from the kingdom of Benin, now Nigeria, that are held in its collection.  

These events have piled pressure on UK museums to get on with returning the sculptures they hold – and to avoid making this conditional on the building of a museum in Nigeria or any other caveat. Yet even this may not alter the view that Bristol needs to do more to acknowledge its role in slavery and colonial violence.  

There is also the question of whether the display of the Colston statue adequately addresses the absence of a coherent narrative about Bristol, slavery and colonialism in the city.  

Growing pressure 

There are calls for a comprehensive cultural and investment strategy to make the city’s heritage institutions more equitable, inclusive and diverse.  

Bristol will need to devise more ambitious plans to address its past, rather than risk being seen as covering it up with piecemeal and tokenistic gestures. Pressure is growing on the city to do this now before there are further social disturbances – because this issue will not go away. 

Errol Francis is the artistic director and chief executive of Culture& 

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