A majority of Bristolians think the toppled statue of slave trader Edward Colston should be displayed in one of the city's museums, according to the results of a survey on the artefact’s future.
The survey, which ran last year alongside the Colston Statue: What Next? display at Bristol’s M Shed museum, attracted almost 14,000 responses.
Run by the We Are Bristol History Commission, the survey endeavored to represent every Bristol neighbourhood fairly, with paper questionnaires distributed and extra outreach in areas with lower initial response rates.
Four out of five respondents told the survey they thought the statue, which was torn down during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020, should be displayed in a Bristol museum.
Around one in six people did not want the statue to be displayed in a museum. Of those, three quarters wanted it to be returned to its plinth while around one quarter wanted it destroyed or not on display.
Respondents also gave their views on what should happen to the statue’s former plinth on Colston Avenue, with seven in 10 in favour of adding a plaque to reflect on the events of June 2020, and six in 10 agreeing that the plinth should be used for temporary artworks and sculptures.
A majority of respondents (65%) said they felt positive about the statue being pulled down. The main reasons given for this were that “Colston should not be celebrated or commemorated with a statue given his role in transatlantic slavery” and “legal removal or contextualisation of Colston statue was overdue. The council were never going to act.”
Of those who had negative feelings about the statue coming down, the most common reasons they gave were that “toppling the statue was illegal / wrong and should have been stopped” and “Bristol shouldn't change, ignore or forget unpalatable aspects of history”.
The We Are Bristol History Commission proposed a number recommendations based on the survey's findings. It said the Colston statue should enter the permanent collection of the Bristol City Council museums service, preserved in its current state.
The commission said future displays of the statue should draw on “the principles and practice of the temporary M Shed display where the statue was lying horizontally” and said attention should be paid to “presenting the history in a nuanced, contextualised and engaging way, including information on the broader history of the enslavement of people of African descent”.
The commission recommended that the statue's plinth, along with its original plaques, remain in place and that a new plaque is installed that briefly and factually explains when and why the statue was put up and taken down.
The commission said the city should “think creatively about the empty plinth and its immediate vicinity” and called for funding to be sought for temporary artworks and activities related to this.
The commission outlined two principles to guide future use of the plinth, recommending “periods of intentional emptiness and presence” and that plinth is seen as “a space for dialogue and conversation about things that matter in and for the city, including the legacy of transatlantic slavery.”
The commission said the toppling of the statue had opened the opportunity for the history of the city’s involvement in transatlantic slavery to be addressed “urgently, appropriately and sensitively”.
The commission added: “When making decisions around contested heritage, public bodies should develop and follow processes that are fair and transparent, inclusive, participatory, evidence-based and committed to justice.”
Four people accused of illegally removing the Colston statue were cleared of criminal damage in January. The statue is currently in storage.
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