Colston ReconfiguredA Fulcrum for Future Understanding
Hannah Charlton explores what the journey of the statue of a Bristol slavetrader is revealing about the wider historical moment the country finds itself in
A year ago, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a white policeman and the worldwide Black Lives Matter response which followed, a statue of Edward Colston was pulled off its plinth in central Bristol. It was then dragged and rolled down the street by a growing crowd and cast into the same water that had seen slave ships arriving and departing there centuries before as part of the transatlantic slave trade.
This same statue has now been put on temporary display inside the inspiring M Shed museum in Bristol. It has been through a process of repair, removing the worst of the river mud and damage, but with a unique process of restoration – it has not been returned to its original state. The markings of protest have been conserved, with the red paint on the statue’s hands and face.
A surprising message from the past turned up when, during the work on the statue, a 1895 copy of Titbits magazine was found rolled up inside Colston’s coat-tails. The restoration team revealed that the names of those who had erected the statue were handwritten on it. Perhaps Colston’s reputation as an eminent Bristol philanthropist, rather than a member of the Royal Africa Society and profiteer from slavery, was already vulnerable to an ironic interpretation.
The statue is now lying on its back, like an effigy, although the curators debated about which angle to position it, in order to keep it in a neutral state – neither with overtones of reverence nor at a slant to suggest the falling. In this horizontal stance, it continues its highly contested status in the so-called ‘Statue Wars’ – a public debate about illuminating our Empire past and its consequences; or preserving it, untouched, in aspic. It is in limbo, waiting for its public to decide what happens next.
In its present state, the statute encapsulates one of the most acute symbols of the transition we are undergoing, as we attempt to address the need for a comprehensive understanding of our shared past rather than conform to the dominant narrative of history that has been fed into our national consciousness for centuries.
As the historian David Olusoga observes, the Colston statue has shifted from being a “totem of power” to “a historical artefact … with multiple meanings and layers”. With its carefully preserved markings and traces of frustration and outrage, it will inevitably become a pivotal point in the transition.
But working towards an acknowledgement and shared understanding of the consequences of our imperial past is complex. In a recent BBC documentary, The Statue Wars, Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees pointed out that nothing about this set of circumstances is binary: it is not a question of statue or no statue.
Unless we accept the need for change, share more information and tackle the discussions we all need to have, we will not move forward to a less divisive future. For Rees, we are at an “immature stage” of our discussions on racism, the contributory factors and the consequences. And Colston’s horizontal statue and the empty plinth in the city on which it once stood will help determine the shape and nature of those discussions.
But there is a need to look beyond the actual statue to the full context of the long journey Bristol has undertaken. This is not about one day in history, but about a lengthy process of change.
With its carefully preserved markings and traces of frustration and outrage, it will inevitably become a pivotal point in the transition
The M Shed is dedicated to telling the story of Bristol in a very different way – at all points, it aims to involve the public in engaging with their own history. And so with Colston: the museum is undergoing a full process of public participation with regards to the options for the statute’s future.
An online survey is inviting opinions on the future of the statue and asks people whether they agree that “the Colston statue should be put on display in a museum in Bristol”; whether its former plinth should be kept but left empty; if the plaque on the plinth’s side should be updated to reflect the events of 7 June 2020; or whether the plaque should be used for temporary or permanent artworks. This leaves out the proposal suggested by Banksy last year of restoring the statue to the plinth but instead capturing the moment when members of the public pulled it down.
Marvin Rees will, no doubt, be sensitive to all of the public’s views in Bristol – including those reluctant at change. The group ‘Save Our Statues’ block-booked tickets for the M Shed’s display of the Colston statue when it was first opened to the public, in order to deny people access to it and block the opening up of discussion.
The option to house the reconfigured statue inside a museum, with the full context it deserves, could well be the most positive route for the museum to take. The M Shed’s temporary display already offers evidence of Colston’s involvement in slavery; his accrued wealth; and how he was, by virtue of his related philanthropy, elevated to a major figure in Bristol. It also displays the placards used on the day of the statue’s removal, which were placed around the plinth.
The full context might be to trace how the frustration with his public status has been challenged since the 1990s; and show the various explanatory plaques that have been proposed over the years, reflecting the debates on the wording, to trace the events of the day of the statue’s removal and the following year – perhaps even mentioning the charges brought against those who are alleged to have been involved in its removal, to offer full transparency in the process of public protest.
Statues are symbols of our values and our values change. And our values now seem to be pointing towards an opening up of our history to acknowledge the brutal and discriminatory activities and attitudes within the British Empire and its consequences. As part of this, we should be able to make changes to our public displays that reflect contemporary feelings and work towards a better future.
The city of Bristol has been campaigning for the Colston statue to be removed for many years. The removal of the statue was the beginning of a process that should be documented and explained and discussed with full evidence and supporting information.
The empty plinth in itself has been a site of activity and expression – from a display of the placards around the plinth two days after the statue was brought down; to the various pieces of art mounted on it since such as the sculpture of the Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid by Marc Quinn. It continues to be an important public site for discussion.
Later this year, we will see, not only what Bristol decides to do with the statue, but how it frames the discussion. We will see the trial of the Colston Four, and we will see how the people of Bristol continue to reconcile the desire for change with an uneasy, conservative unwillingness to let go of a statue that represents a specific view of the past.
Bristol is a model for us all and we can learn so much from what it does next.
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