Colston, where he belongs
Why Bristol’s infamous statue is better suited in a museum.
By Rory Buccheri
Image courtesy of KSAG Photography under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Following the wave of BLM protests across the UK, the statue of Bristol-born merchant Edward Colston was thrown into the River Avon by protesters, where it remained for months. What was unknown to the vast majority until the day of the protest was that Colston built his merchant empire and legacy on the Atlantic slave trade, being actively involved in the trafficking and killing of thousands of people. His legacy can still be seen throughout Bristol, from streets and squares across the city to Bristol’s main cultural venue—Colston Hall—all bearing his name.
What the statue highlights is a real cultural issue. Instead of being discussed critically, Colston’s figure was standing proud in broad daylight asking to be celebrated. This statuesque glorification is what made his legacy go unchallenged… Until BLM protesters shook things up.
After spending months on the bottom of the river, the gloriously graffitied statue re-emerged and was placed on display at M Shed, an exhibition space part of Bristol Museums. You may wonder: how does the museum environment work differently in terms of glorification and celebration than his previous spot on Colston Avenue?
The answer is: Colston’s statue has changed. First of all, the way of displaying it has changed. Colston went from a stone plinth elevating him above Bristol’s citizens, to a reclining position, lying supine in the exhibition space. Secondly, the surface has changed. It has gone from clean bronze touched only by time and pigeons to his face and body covered by red and blue graffiti added by protesters (which have been untouched purposely for the exhibition). These are all signs that Colston is now exactly where he belongs. In the museum space people are being explicitly asked to engage with the statue as they never have done before. The new positioning and surface are asking for a new type of commitment, and the labels given by M Shed can contain much more information than one, after-thought plaque placed in the city centre ever could. In presence of the colourful graffiti every viewer is being pushed to interrogate themselves on how this statue of a 400-year-old still bears signs of our present and in what terms it can exist in 2021. Cleverly, the exhibition is called What Next? reminding us that history can and must be interrogated going forward.
Had the statue been reinstated on its public and shameful platform, no further debate would have arisen—making years of fierce fights for racial equality and challenges to hypocrisy fade into the background.
Thus, I believe Colston has now been put where he belongs. It is time we stop excusing racist figures like Colston on the sole basis that they have shaped our heritage and culture. We have reached a time in which we can equally acknowledge and challenge the past and the men and women who made it. If not for the sake of celebrating a collective past, then for the sake of building a collective future.