When the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled, graffitied and rolled into Bristol harbour in June 2020, it was a symbolic moment in Britain’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
For Fran Coles, the conservation and documentation manager at Bristol Culture & Creative Industries, the immediate priority was to stabilise the statue’s condition after it was retrieved from the water.
“It was a new situation to work with an object that has so immediately changed its nature and become this focal point of a movement,” she says.
The work involved technical challenges such as stopping the paint from flaking off. But for Coles, it was a straightforward choice to keep the graffiti, with the aim of stabilising the statue in that moment in time.
Bristol Culture is now likely to bring the statue into its collection, after a consultation found that the city’s residents favoured displaying it in a museum (although Bristol City Council would need to approve this).
Coles says an unexpected side effect has been the chance to engage with a wider audience – with many of the public pleasantly surprised at the decision to keep the statue as it was. This suggested a perception that conservators just want to make everything new and shiny when, in fact, the goal was “preserving [the statue] in a way that helps to tell the stories that are so significant for us as a city”.
The experience has helped Coles to formalise an approach that regards objects in terms of how they can tell a story and how they can be used to affect people and help them talk about issues – and how conservators can enable that.
“The BLM movement highlights how keeping an object for the longest amount of time is not the only factor in a conservation decision,” says Jane Henderson, a professor of conservation at Cardiff University.
If the British Museum’s moai sculpture from Easter Island was returned to the outdoor location it came from, for example, it will decay faster. “But is that less value?” asks Henderson. “Or have you increased the value?”
Some conservators view their role as a technical one that is separate from politics. But Henderson says when a conservation argument – such as “we’ve cared for it for so long” – is used against restitution, conservators need to engage with the political dimensions of their work.
Emma Le Cornu, a conservator at Manx National Heritage, says balancing preservation and access is particularly difficult with placards from 2020 BLM protests, which the organisation acquired through rapid-response collecting. Because these are made from household materials, they are inherently unstable, and as soon as they go on display, there is a risk of a change in their appearance.
“The challenge is to try to keep these items in as authentic condition as possible, but to also keep them accessible,” says Le Cornu. This means it is important to have conversations with curators about how they are used.
“Is it acceptable that they might fade, or their condition will worsen if they are accessed and displayed? As a conservator, the default is to preserve things for as long as possible. That’s why it’s interesting to take a step back and ask ‘why are we conserving this and who is it for?’,” says Le Cornu.
It seems likely that conservators will face such challenges more often with the growing trend for collecting handmade objects – whether from protests or for other purposes such as showing support for the NHS.
Conservation can also raise many other ethical questions. Bristol Culture is working on a project to decolonise the language used in its collections database, to explain or remove offensive and outdated terminology. The service is also auditing its displays to ensure object labels better reflect objects’ colonial context.
Meanwhile, Perth Museum & Art Gallery has been “keen to start a conversation” about the ethics of conserving and displaying human remains, says JP Reid, senior new projects officer at Culture Perth and Kinross.
A recent exhibition allowed visitors to watch the conservation of an ancient Egyptian mummy. “Visitors were overwhelmingly in favour of the sensitive treatment and interpretation of human remains as a way of connecting with the past,” says Reid.
Facing up to inequalities
Conservation is also facing up to inequalities in its own workforce. In June 2020, Sara Crofts, chief executive of the Institute of Conservation (Icon), admitted the profession had not done enough to combat racism.
Since then, following the recommendations of a new diversity and inclusion task and finish group, Icon has committed to new measures including an annual membership diversity survey, creating “affinity groups” to support members from marginalised demographics, and broadening its student membership to include craft apprentices.
The next generation of conservators is keen to engage with questions of cultural justice, says Cathy Daly, a conservator who teaches at the University of Lincoln. She asks her students to discuss the example of a Tibetan Buddha statue, which conservators at the Victoria and Albert Museum opened to take out some scrolls, although this wouldn’t be considered appropriate from a religious perspective.
“Over the years, the students have become more and more irate about it and find it less and less acceptable,” she says.
Jonathan Knott is a freelance journalist