Changes made after Colston exhibition hit by blockbooking protests - Museums Association

Changes made after Colston exhibition hit by blockbooking protests

Campaigners reserve tickets in bulk to stop people visiting museum
Profile image for Geraldine Kendall Adams
Geraldine Kendall Adams
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The statue is on display at M Shed until 5 September
The statue is on display at M Shed until 5 September © Bristol City Council

Bristol City Council has been forced to make changes to its online booking system after its display of the torn-down statue of slave-trader Edward Colston was hit by blockbooking protests.

The free Colston Statue: What Next? exhibition opened to the public at M Shed last week ahead of the first anniversary of the statue’s toppling on 7 June.

But the campaign group Save Our Statues, which formed in response to the toppling of Colston, urged its 24,000 Twitter followers to book up tickets, tweeting: “It would be so embarrassing for them if nobody turned up... Remember, it's free to book, so knock yourself out!”

The group said its protest is “a stand for due process”, describing the exhibition as a “celebration of criminal violence and mob rule”. It said: “As a matter of democratic principle, the first step must be to repair and reinstate the statue, and then if the council wants to run a democratic process it can. Unlike what happened one year ago this is a peaceful and civilised way to exercise our democratic right to protest.”

Heritage professionals have criticised the protest. TV historian Bendor Grosvenor tweeted: “Preventing people from visiting their local museum is not a civilised form of protest.”

Meanwhile historian David Olusoga defended the exhibition after the Daily Telegraph described the statue's treatment as being “like a disgraced celebrity awaiting trial”.   

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Olusoga said: “There is a real cold flippancy in comparing a slave trader, complicit in the deaths of an estimated 19 thousand people, around 14% of them children, to a 'disgraced celebrity'.”

It is not clear how successful the blockbooking campaign has been at deterring visitors. Tickets remain available for most days this week, although one museum visitor tweeted yesterday that the display was quieter than expected.

A council spokeswoman said the museum has made changes to its online booking system in response to the protest. “We’re always more than happy to accommodate walk-ups if we haven’t reached our Covid secure capacity,” she added.   

The statue is displayed in a supine position, alongside a series of placards from the Black Lives Matter protest that led to it being torn down. A public survey will run throughout the exhibition, with the results used to inform the statue’s long-term future.

A plaque commissioned by a group of “guerrilla historians” has been placed at the spot where the statue was thrown into Bristol Harbour. It was designed by artist John Packer and features an excerpt of a poem by Vanessa Kisuule.

Comments (6)

  1. Steve Davis says:

    I am a Bristolian, born and bred now living in france, such action as blocking tickets like this is not democratic neither is it freedom of speech. Please let Bristolians visit and make their choice.
    Everyone else really should mind their own business.
    Steve Davis
    Museum Designer

  2. Martin Sach says:

    I am not sure if a block booking action achieves anything but as museum professionals we should wholeheartedly condemn vandalism of heritage including statues. Whatever we may think of Colston now by the standards and values of 2021 the good or bad of historical figures can only be judged by the values of the era in which they lived. He was apparently estimed in his day. It is a hackneyed old saying that the past is a foreign country but true. What was considered morally wrong in the past isn’t the same as now. Museums should want to preserve things from the past, whether or not the actions of people in the past would be considered acceptable today.

    1. Gary Winter says:

      Neither should we ignore the values of the era in which the statues were commissioned and erected, nor the motivations for doing so.

    2. Alberto Duman says:

      I am rather disappointed that you describe yourself as a ‘museum professional’ in the present and still think that ‘the good or bad of historical figures can only be judged by the values of the era in which they lived’ as an argument for ‘wholeheartedly’ condemn any vandalism of heritage.
      I hope you would agree that the presence of a statue in a public place is a very different matter and manifestation than the mission of museums to ‘preserve things from the past’?
      The street is not a museum, or if it is, it is a kind of museum politically curated through forms of representation of power that have a direct civic impact and vibrate with very present legacies in the now.
      Given the different circumstances, it DOES really matter what is considered morally wrong in those acts of civic representation, who is represented and why. In my opinion, history is much better served by Colston’s statue being in the M-Shed as he is, a true example of a ‘live’ exhibit, and a one chance for making museums the sites of civic discourse they should be.

      1. Robert Day says:

        You seem to want to have your cake and eat it. You don’t want it in the street yet the only way you want it to be shown in the museum is in the defaced manner it was left by the mob. You are in effect condoning the actions of the mob who took it into their own self-righteous hands to speak on behalf of everyone else.
        If it can’t be reinstated in the street then let it be cleaned and restored and stand upright in the museum. It is not a trendy art installation, it is a statue.
        In addition, why can’t EVERY Bristolian get a vote on what to do with the statue, otherwise the decision is left to a handful of criminals and those who manage to get a ticket to the exhibition.

        1. Alberto Duman says:

          Dear Robert,
          Aside from the suggestions you make of ‘condoning actions of the mob’, I will send you towards this article which explains the reasoning behind the decisions made by M-Shed and the We Are Bristol History Commission in regards to their mission, the way the statue is displayed and how you -with EVERY Bristolian- can meaningfully engage in the process of determining the future of the Colston statue: https://theconversation.com/edward-colston-museum-display-what-happens-next-for-the-fallen-statue-162376

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