Search Museum Next

Toppled Statue of Slave Trader to Go on Display

A statue of a 17th-century slave trader, Edward Colston, will go on display in a Bristol museum after it was toppled from its plinth in the city centre a year ago. Colston has long been a controversial figure in Bristol, the city he represented as a Conservative MP, for many years. He made his fortune in the trans-Atlantic slave trade whereby large numbers of West Africans were trafficked from their homeland to plantations in the United States, South America and the Caribbean. Colston, who conducted his trade when it was legal to do so under English law, was a member of the Royal African Company which enjoyed a monopoly on the trade routes in West Africa that included the control of ivory, gold, silver and, most famously, slaves.

Protests New and Old

During a protest in Bristol last year, Colston’s statue was torn down. At the time, much of the western world was seeing anti-racism protests under the umbrella term of ‘Black Lives Matter‘, a movement that had first got underway in the United States and which won considerable interest following the murder of George Floyd, an inhabitant of Minneapolis, while undergoing arrest by a serving police officer. The incident sparked activity all over the world including the protest surrounding Colston’s memorial statue. During the protest, not only was the statue pulled down but it was daubed in graffiti, dragged through the streets and, finally, dumped into the city’s harbour.

The connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Bristol protest seem to be inextricably linked. However, the statue had been a bone of contention for many years with numerous unsuccessful attempts to remove it and find a new place for it to be displayed. These moves were often vetoed by local councillors, some of whom saw the statue as a fitting way to memorialise the philanthropy of Colston who, in later life, donated money for almshouses, a school and a hospital.

And yet, his name and his vast fortune will, for many, be forever associated with slavery. This has led to the city’s authorities deciding that re-erecting the statue at its former site where it is likely to be unwelcomed by locals needs to be considered carefully. Instead, it has been announced that the statue will form the centrepiece of a new temporary exhibition. This will be located at the M Shed museum, an institution devoted to all aspects of the city’s history that is positioned close to the docks where the statue was submerged last year.

A Temporary Exhibition

The statue will be displayed with a number of placards and photographs that were taken during the protest that resulted in the statue’s toppling. It is hoped that it will provide visitors with a timeline of the events of that day. In an effort to reach a wider audience who are interested in Colston, his life as a slaver, his statue and his legacy, an online version of the exhibition will be available, too. Both in-person visitors and online ones will be asked to complete a survey to gather views about what should happen to the statue once the temporary exhibit needs to find a new home.

Marvin Rees, Bristol’s mayor, said that the events of last year had undoubtedly produced a significant day in the history of Bristol in coming to terms with its past. “[It has had]… a profound impact – not just in Bristol – but across the country and around the globe,” he said. Rees went on to add that the M Shed’s temporary exhibition would provide the necessary stimulus to promote a conversation about the city’s history and, in particular, Colston’s role and legacy in both.

“The future of [Colston’s memorial]… must be decided by the people of Bristol,” Rees said. He went on to urge every Bristolian to take the opportunity to share their views on the statue and to help make future decisions about it are ones that would be rooted in the community. According to the University of Bristol, the body that is responsible for managing the public engagement with the survey, responses will be archived and become a publicly accessible resource for academic researchers and schools.

Conservation and Contemporary Issues

After it was retrieved from the bottom of Bristol’s harbour, a conservation team at the M Shed set about cleaning the Colston statue, stabilising the spray-painted graffiti that had been daubed on it to prevent it coming off. Furthermore, a tyre that emerged with the statue when it was pulled out of the dock will also form a part of the display. As Fran Coles, a conservation manager at the M Shed, put it, the aim of such conservation work was to prevent deterioration from the saltwater and silt it had seen while under the waves.

“The museum’s job is to reflect both the history and the contemporary issues relating to Bristol,” Coles said. “Our role is to tell the stories that really matter to the people of Bristol…[and that is why the M Shed constitutes]… a very suitable location for the short-term,” she added. Meanwhile, Katie Finnegan-Clarke, of the Countering Colston campaign which has long said the statue should have been removed from its former site said that she thought the defaced statue should be on show at the M-Shed permanently. In some quarters, some have called for the graffiti to be removed from the statue and for it to be restored to its former appearance.

The survey is, therefore, likely to take in a wide cross-section of views before a final decision is made about what to do with the relic. In the meantime, four individuals have been charged with offences relating to the toppling of the statue of the slave trader. A trial is slated for December relating to those charges.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week