It has been a little over a year since the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was dismounted and dispatched into Bristol’s harbor. Though it has since been retrieved and hidden out of sight, over this period, Colston’s legacy has loomed larger than ever and has invited a broader question: How should we remember the culpable figures of Britain’s racist history? This month an answer has been provided in the form of an exhibition. Colston — graffitied and battered — has temporarily been put on display at the M Shed Museum on Bristol’s Princes Wharf.
The motive behind this exhibition is largely conciliatory. As outlined by Fran Coles, the manager of M Shed, in the new BBC documentary Statue Wars: One Summer in Bristol, the intention was to “stabilize the statue” and the subsequent political climate that followed its fall. The display was built on a desire to work toward consensus through democratic discussion. Here, the museum is supposed to serve as a public forum, where Bristolians can congregate and debate the significance of figures like Colston and decide what should happen next. This process has been literalized into a survey that visitors are asked to complete before leaving, which has implicitly privileged the voice of bureaucracy over direct action. Lying supine, the statue now occupies a mealy-mouthed middle ground — halfway between the riverbed and its former plinth, halfway between a radical act and an affirmation of cultural conservatism.
Placing the Colston statue in a museum marks an attempt at canonizing a deeply anti-institutional gesture. Part of the problem is that museums carry their own imperialist and racist legacies and ideologies, but it is also a curatorial issue. At face value, museums tend to function as archives, petrifying objects and relegating them to the past. When it comes to documenting protest movements, this can effectively alienate audiences from the immediacy and impetus of surrounding political struggles. In the case of the statue, this historicizing tendency has divorced it from the context that gave it meaning. While the exhibition is framed by protest placards, the takeaway message is left largely ambiguous. Far from encapsulating and motivating anti-racist action, the statue has fallen back onto itself — once more standing as a relic of the past.
This political impotence is mirrored in its lack of artistic merit. As Gary Younge argued recently in The Guardian, statues are terrible educators, but they are equally dull pieces of public art. In reaching for immortality they ironically seem literal and lifeless, only improved with a splatter of paint, some graffiti, and a blindfold. Works like Deimantas Narkevičius’s Once in the XX Century and Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis’s film Disgraced Monuments show us that statues are enlivened and given significance through their interaction with people, that they can reveal the social esteem and the identity of the community around them. As art historian Edit András argues in his article “Public Monuments in Changing Societies”: “Toppling monuments has been almost an obligatory concomitant phenomenon of every political change in the course of history.” When the Colston statue fell in the river it imbibed copious meaning. When it was retrieved some of that meaning was lost. The revolutionary imagery of its toppling was replaced in public consciousness with a picture of its rigidly horizontal body within the museum.
Cynics argue that it is easier to grapple with statues than reality. However, this is to engage with British politics on an extremely superficial level. In a post-Brexit climate, Union Jacks, military paraphernalia and images of the queen have cluttered our political landscape, covering up the more pressing and profound issues that people are facing: unemployment, the housing crisis, welfare cuts, xenophobia, and the pandemic. The tearing down of statutes lifts a lid on the fringes of this veil and challenges the embedded nationalist hegemony pushed by politicians.
This is made clear to anyone who has attended a protest in Parliament Square over the past year. The reaction around statues is paranoid and agitated, as police cluster around them, uncomprehending of the focus or energy of the crowds. Last June, statues were even fortified in monolithic grey boxes. Seeing Colston now, he is similarly protected by a box. In fact, he is guarded from further intervention by CCTV, glass, and human guards. What is revealed by this securitization is, paradoxically, insecurity. Looking forward, while the exhibition may temporarily cushion Colston’s fall, the desire that brought him down won’t be so easily placated.