A year after it was torn down and thrown in Bristol harbour, the statue of 17th-century slavetrader Edward Colston went on display at the city’s local history museum, M Shed, this month as part of a public consultation to determine what will be done with it in future.
The toppling of the statue set off a fierce public debate about contested heritage and the exhibition itself has not all been smooth sailing; block-booking protests by the campaign group Save Our Statues, which wants to see the statue restored and reinstalled on its plinth, forced the museum to change its online ticketing system days after the exhibition opened.
Museums Journal spoke to the curators involved to find out how the historic display came together.
What has it been like to work on an exhibition of such an historic nature?
Lisa Graves: A complete honour to be a small part of Bristol’s living history but also a great responsibility to make sure that our ideas translate well to our audiences. It’s been challenging but it’s also exciting to see how this unique situation will play out in the coming months.
Amber Druce: It’s been an incredibly complicated project, but a real privilege to be trusted with. As a history curator, my initial involvement was to think about the long-term legacy and to collect relevant objects, photos, and stories. Bristol Waste saved the placards left around the statue plinth for us, so that was an incredible way to collect. At the time we were mostly working from home, but it was an exciting way for a few of us to return to work.
What were the main things you wanted the display to achieve?
LG: To offer visitors a way to engage with the statue as it is now. The display is a very calm and contemplative space and hopefully people will take the time to reflect, possibly look further into the reasons why it came down and complete the survey to have their voice heard on what happens next.
AD: The aim was for the display to be a conversation starter – which it certainly has been. We wanted to present the facts, and for visitors to be able to make up their own minds about what happens next.
Can you talk us through the decision-making process behind the objects and interpretation?
AD: The only objects are the statue and six Black Lives Matter placards. The rest is interpretation - a timeline, information about who Colston was, responses to the toppling, and a survey. We could have included a magazine found inside the statue by our conservators, and the rope and bicycle tyre that came out of the docks with the statue, but we felt these were a distraction from the main issue.
LG: There are only a handful of placards on display from the hundreds that we hold but it was felt that too many may dominate the display. It’s important to say that the display is not a comprehensive exhibition detailing the full story of Colston, it is a display to spark a conversation and encourage debate on a wide range of related issues.
The toppling of the statue sparked a fierce backlash and the exhibition itself has been the target of protests. What has been your strategy for dealing with this?
LG: We are encouraging everyone to submit their views via the survey and we have a broader engagement strategy that will capture the views of people who can’t or don’t want to come to M Shed or visit the online version of the display. It’s important that we capture the views of as many communities as possible to help inform the city conversation about our past and future.
How would you respond to criticism that the museum is supporting the destruction of heritage by not reinstalling the statue and or removing the graffiti?
LG: Our job as curators is to stabilise the statue until such time that decisions about its future are made by the city. Our job is to try and explain and explore different aspects of history and heritage so that people have the opportunity to engage in informed debate and conversation.
AD: People can see the statue covered in graffiti, but we’re not presenting it as a celebration. Some people will see the graffiti and be horrified. We’re just presenting people with the current situation so they can share their thoughts on what happens next.
How have you engaged with local communities in creating the display?
AD: The display itself is to facilitate a community consultation, rather than being a full exhibition.
LG: Our partners in this were predominately the We Are Bristol History Commission. If we had consulted far and wide it would have taken, quite rightly, a huge amount of time and effort. Covid delayed things anyway so we wanted to get the display and survey up and running as soon as possible.