The statue was raised from the harbour early yesterday morning

Exhibition of toppled Colston statue planned when Bristol museums reopen

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 12.06.2020

Statue retrieved from harbour as debate rages over public monuments

An exhibition on the toppling of the statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston will be held at one of Bristol's museums later this year.

The bronze statue, which was torn down and thrown into the river during a Black Lives Matter protest last weekend, was retrieved from the harbour yesterday and moved to a secure location, where its condition is being assessed. It will be displayed at either M Shed or Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. The two sites will be the first of the council's museums to reopen in late July. 

Plans for the exhibition are still in the early stages but it is likely to be held in late summer or early autumn. The statue will be displayed as it looked when it was thrown into the harbour, with no attempt made to repair any damage or remove graffiti. It will be shown alongside Black Lives Matter placards and oral histories gathered from last weekend’s historic protest. A full consultation will be carried out with communities ahead of the exhibition.

“We clearly need to make sure that there is significant community involvement in this process,” said Jon Finch, head of culture at the council. “Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of what happened, it has been an item that caused great concern for many years. We need to be actively gathering and sharing stories from across the whole community.”

Finch said the council was considering the practicalities around safety and social distancing for the exhibition, which is likely to generate huge interest.

The events of last weekend have highlighted the “critical nature of civic museums as places where people’s voices are heard”, said Finch.  “It’s been incredibly hectic but it’s one of those times where it shows the value of what museums could and should be about in being able to respond and engage with social issues and current concerns.”

The city’s mayor, Marvin Rees, has announced a new commission with a more long-term focus that will work with communities to research “Bristol’s true history”.  The commission will inform planning for the exhibition.

He said: “The only way we can work together on our future is by learning the truth of our beginnings, embracing the facts, and sharing those stories with others. This is why this commission is so important.”

The council is also considering what should go on the plinth where Colston stood. Rees said the council had received many ideas, including another statue of a notable Bristolian or revolving art projects. He said any decision on how the plinth should be used will be decided democratically through consultation. 

Bristol's museums have already been developing their digital offer so people can access accurate stories about the city’s slave trade history, and working on a decolonisation project to scrutinise its buildings and collections.

Worldwide action

The toppling of the statue has sparked a heated debate about decolonising public monuments, and turned a spotlight on memorials to other historical figures with links to slavery, colonialism and fascism.

A statue of Robert Milligan, an 18th-century slave trader, was removed from outside the Museum of London Docklands earlier this week, and a statue of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Association, has been temporarily removed from its plinth in Poole, Dorset over concerns it would be targeted because of his alleged fascist sympathies.

The event has stirred up action worldwide; a protestor was injured while toppling a confederate statue in the US, while the Congolese diaspora in Belgium have called for the country's statues of King Leopold, whose reign of Congo Free State led to the genocide of millions, to be torn down.

A number of monuments in London, including statues of Winston Churchill in Westminster, James II, which stands outside the National Gallery, have been boarded up ahead of anticipated protests this weekend. Black Lives Matters organisers have cancelled a planned march due to threats from hate groups.

Heritage sector responds

The toppling of Colston and momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement has led some museums and heritage sites to fast-track their work on decolonisation.

The National Trust has confirmed that it is “accelerating plans” to assess statues and memorials on its 500 properties that are linked to slavery, and ensure they are managed appropriately.

A spokesman said; “The trust looks after places and collections that are linked to world histories in so many ways, including the legacies of colonialism and slavery. We recognise the need to explore them more fully. It is crucial we do it in a way that is respectful and sensitive, taking account of high-quality research.

“We have a long way to go but we're working to address the often painful and challenging histories attached to our places and collections.”

Darren Henley, CEO of Arts Council England, said: “Our public spaces and our museums do need to change if we are to properly reflect the stories and experiences of all our communities. Black lives matter and Black people’s history, perspectives and stories matter. We understand many people's frustration and anger because this change hasn’t happened quickly enough. We recognise the vital importance of freedom of speech and peaceful protest in our society, but we don’t condone criminal activity.”

There is a growing debate over what should happen to any statues that are removed, with mixed views among culture and heritage professionals over whether or not they belong in museums.

Historian Charlotte Lydia Riley tweeted: “Oh my god stop telling people to put boring statues of terrible men in museums. Museums don't want them!”

But playwright Bonnie Greer said: “You can teach in a museum. If you destroy these statues, people in future may think/believe that they never existed. And what/who these statues were about must never be forgotten. Or they'll be erected again.”


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