ICONOCLASM, RE-INTERPRETATION, COUNTER-MEMORIAL, OR WHAT?
Andy Hardman, Institute for Cultural Practices
In the era of Black Lives Matter, what options are available for dealing with monuments, memorials and statuary with colonialist links?
On the morning of 18 October 2018 the people of Bristol awoke to find a poignant addition to the Grade II listed statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) designed by John Cassidy and erected in 1895. Around the base of the statue’s Portland stone plinth had been neatly placed one hundred or so prone figures, arranged in such a way as to recall eighteenth century abolitionist diagrams of slave ships made to raise public awareness of the sadistic methods by which human cargos were transported at the height of the Atlantic slave trade.
The effect of this particular art attack (others include a notable ‘yarn bombing’) on public perception of Colston were instantaneous, powerful and, as it now seems, far reaching. Colston, famed locally more for his wealth and philanthropy, could no longer be seen as separate from the vile trade by which he had made his fortune. Edward Colston was a slaver.
Now, in 2020, we find ourselves at an intense moment of reckoning about the UK’s colonial past and structural racism today. On June 7, during a Black Lives Matter demo in Bristol, Colston’s statue was torn down, defaced, dragged through the streets of Bristol and tipped into the harbour, watched by large crowds of cheering people. This spectacular act of retributive iconoclasm, played out through digital media around the world, has since become an iconic image of the BLM movement.
I was asked in 2019 to participate in a workshop, Let Statues Speak, organised by the Stuart Hall Foundation and co-hosted by the University of Manchester’s Centre on the Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE). The purpose of the event was, in part, to discuss emerging demands for the removal or re-interpretation of colonialist monuments that stand in prominent civic spaces around the UK. This familiar roll-call of British imperial figures includes Robert Clive, Cecil Rhodes and Robert Baden-Powell and a growing hit list (and, it should be noted, calls for community consultation and debate) can now be found at Topple the Racists. Amongst other fascinating examples of creative interventions discussed on the day, I was keen to talk about Colston’s statue; the slave ship being, to my mind, a particularly affective response to a troubling monument. So recent events came as no real surprise.
The conversations that came out of that day have resurfaced in my mind over the last few weeks, particularly as talk in the museum world has turned to the pros and cons of various options available for those professionals whose responsibilities include monuments, collections or artefacts with troubling narratives. Three or four distinct options stand out for me as practical ways to act in this specific case.
First, the current situation in Bristol represents one option. Colston’s trip to the depths of Bristol’s harbour was, in fact, short-lived; the statue was rescued by the local authority at great speed, whisked away to a secure museum store and a plan is now mooted for a museum exhibit, including the statue, with new interpretation added. It is undeniably important to process recent events and an appropriate function of the museum is to facilitate such dialogue but is more debate (of the curated sort) really what is needed now? Is there a defence of statuary dedicated to British slavers we need to hear? After all, that side of the story has been on display for over one hundred years.
So, second, do we do nothing? Dismantle the empty plinth and say no more, hasten the erasure of Colston, in effect, from public memory? An unintended consequence might be that, years down the line, when Colston’s removal is a dimming memory there won’t be enough awareness of the reasons for the BLM action to rebut the inevitable campaign to reinstate the statue. When future arguments are made for his philanthropy, will enough Bristolians know that Colston gave money to assist the poor people of Bristol by robbing Black people of their rights, murdering their children, and destroying their life chances and those of countless generations to come, without a prominent public place for that narrative?
Third then, do we replace the statue of Colston with a counter-memorial to the Atlantic slave trade? As Jonathan Jones suggests in the Guardian (8 June, 2020), it is slightly ridiculous that we continue to base our view of the UK’s cultural heritage on old Victorian statues (and, therefore, their values). But the planning and development timeframe of such a proposal suggests Bristol might see a replacement in five to ten years time and a fitting response is needed now.
So, finally, (and this will not be a popular option but hear me out) does an argument exists for putting an amended version of the statue back in full view of Bristol’s population? If Colston was put back – the recent dints, spray paint and other damage in place – and the earlier protest artwork reinstated, could that be a just sentence for Colston – to be remembered, but in ignominy, surrounded by representations of the people he traded for profit? Colston’s image would serve, in perpetuity, as a reminder of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade or, at least, until such time that we are sufficiently confident the BLM movement has produced lasting change. Perhaps then Colston can be returned to the bottom of the harbour.
Thankfully, reinstating the statue (in any state) in the city centre is not, so far, part of any plan. Putting Colston back on his plinth would be a triggering reminder for too many in local communities of the Atlantic slave trade and so, rightly, the provocative suggestion above will not happen. Arguably, we are past the time now for conversation (or to play devil’s advocate). In Colston’s case, the people of Bristol have taken the matter into their own hands, weary, maybe, of past failures to act upon listening exercise given by those with the power to decolonise our heritage, amplify dissenting voices and to promote inclusivity.
It goes without saying that any decision on the fate of Colston’s statue and others is not for everyone (myself included). Black and BAME voices – current and emerging – must be consulted and heard on this issue and action taken, unequivocally, on recommendations made. To turn this radical movement into ‘the new normal’ cultural workers outside those communities must avoid complicity through silence (a lesson learned from AIDS activism) and support the current push to end structural racism in the UK in every possible way.
Andy Hardman is a lecturer in museology at the University of Manchester. He is a co-director of Belle Vue Productions, producing research, documentary and archive film for cultural organisations.