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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Steven Morris

Edward Colston statue placed in quiet corner of Bristol museum

Marvin Rees stands in front of the toppled statue of Edward Colston, which is lying horizontal in a glass case.
‘I’m Jamaican. He may have traded one of my ancestors,’ says Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, at the Colston exhibit in M Shed. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

It is undoubtedly the most well-known artefact in Bristol’s waterside museum, but rather than being given a prominent position it has been tucked away in a modest case at the back of a first-floor gallery.

Finding the right setting in M Shed for the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, which was pulled from a plinth in the city and thrown into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020, has been a delicate task.

The solution is to give the statue a permanent home in the Bristol People section of the museum, a couple of hundred metres from where it hit the water, in a discreet corner so visitors will not stumble on it accidentally but have to make a deliberate choice to see it.

“We’ve been talking to people in the city about this for the last four years,” said Helen McConnell Simpson, a senior curator of history for Bristol Museums. Some people wanted it thrown away, some put back on the plinth, but about 80% of Bristol residents who took part in a consultation agreed that the best place for it was in one of the city’s museums.

McConnell Simpson said: “Something that came across very strongly, especially from our African heritage visitors, was that they wanted to be able to choose whether to see the statue, whether to engage with this story, when they are on a museum visit.

“Some people have also taken offence at the swearwords on the statue. We wanted to give people the opportunity to make the clear decision whether to see it or not.”

Extra security has been introduced around the gallery, including CCTV in case it becomes the focus of other protests. “But we’re really hoping people will use this space to have conversations, further the conversation rather than make a political point,” said McConnell Simpson. “A museum is there to share the history of the city. This has become part of our history.”

The statue is behind a screen of reproductions of placards gathered up after the protest – the real ones are at the museum in storage. The atmosphere inside the case is carefully controlled to preserve the graffiti daubed on it during its toppling.

On a wall near the statue is a plaque from 2019 that was designed to provide details of Colston’s involvement in the slave trade but was never added to the plinth because of criticism that it still described him as one of the “city’s greatest benefactors”.

In an interpretation board near the statue, Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees, the first black directly elected mayor in Europe, says the “place of honour” afforded to the statue in the city centre was “objectionable”.

“I’m Jamaican. He may have traded one of my ancestors,” Rees said.

Rees explains that he could not condone the statue being hauled down but could not help but see and feel the “historical poetry” of what happened.

But it is a complex subject. Rees said: “The statue was pulled down by four white people in a premeditated attack. They were all charged with criminal damage and opted to plead not guilty, taking their case to crown court … I ask whether four black people would have had the confidence to take such a gamble?”

Speaking at the launch event, Rees said he was glad the statue was lying on its back and he was pleased at how Bristol had navigated the issue of what to do with it.

“We held ourselves together and we have got to a point where we now have this incredible display, with the statue in context, with the story preserved and making space for people to think about Bristol’s history and its relationship with people of black African heritage.”

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