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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Aamna Mohdin

How the fall of Edward Colston’s statue revolutionised the way British history is told

Protesters throwing the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally.
Protesters throwing the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

After the statue of enslaver Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol in June 2020 and dumped into the city harbour, ripples spread across the UK. In the following six months there was an unprecedented public reckoning with the legacies of slavery in Britain – most visibly in the removal or alteration of almost 70 tributes to enslavers and colonialists, including 39 names on streets, buildings and schools, as well as 30 statues, plaques and other memorials.

It was a moment that altered how our public spaces engage with history. The Welsh government commissioned an audit of public monuments and across the country 130 Labour-led councils, including in the cities of London, Manchester and Birmingham, announced similar reviews. Suddenly, there was a national discussion about how to understand and contextualise these monuments: would they be better displayed in museums? Should they have new plaques added? Or be removed altogether? In all of these places, questions were raised about how communities should reckon with the past.

This wasn’t a coordinated movement; individual organisations and activists largely did this work independent from each other. It was also an intensely local one, with the drive for change being driven by community activists and politicians. It was met with fierce backlash from the national government, who passed legislation that required the government to approve the removal of any public statue.

But the impact has been unmistakable. Before 2020, I didn’t know much about the statues in London linked to slavery. Some, including the statue of the enslaver Robert Milligan outside the Museum of London Docklands, were removed while others, such as the statues inside the Guildhall of the plantation owner and enslaver William Beckford, and Sir John Cass, an MP and investor in the Royal African Company, have been retained but with new explanatory plaques.

One colleague told me how pleasantly surprised she was to visit a local monument with her children and find a plaque explaining the building’s links to slavery and colonialism. She hadn’t seen that there before.

It has become common to describe all these developments as simply a reaction to the killing of George Floyd and the enormous protests that followed. But that’s not how change happens: in reality, these decisions were the product of thousands of conversations in local communities. I can’t help but wonder what discussions took place behind the scenes in each of these places to shift the national conversation about slavery and its legacies. History is being made – by many hands – but is anyone recording it? If so, whose voices will we remember?

For this week’s newsletter, I spoke to Safina Islam, head of Manchester’s leading race archive, to help get my head around some of these questions.

In spotlight

The University of Manchester, home to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Educational Trust
The University of Manchester, home to the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Educational Trust Photograph: Campus Shots/Alamy

Safina Islam started her role as the head of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre and Education Trust in 2019. It was a new and exciting challenge for her, as she hadn’t worked in the heritage sector before.

“I’m a scientist by trade. I studied biochemistry and did my PhD in vascular cell biology. I then moved into public health and health inequalities. That led me to the civil service, where I went on to lead the first national review of race in the NHS back in 2006,” she said.

Safina said her unique career background helped her to develop one of her most important skills: being disruptive. “I go around and ask why do you do that? Who does it serve? What are the questions you’re asking?”

The Education Trust was established by Lou Kushnick, a former professor of sociology, at the University of Manchester. Prof Kushnick built up a significant collection of anti-racist activist material and what the centre calls the histories of the “global majority” – a collective term used to described ethnic “minorities”, who in fact make up the majority of the world’s population. When he retired, he wanted the collection to be used somewhere.

The race centre opened around the same time as the publication of the Macpherson report. “In Manchester we’d had a similar racist murder of a young person, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah and a subsequent [review], the Macdonald inquiry,” Safina said. “At the time, there just wasn’t this understanding of why different people were in the UK. There weren’t many representative or appropriate educational resources to learn about different communities or cultures. So Lou, along with other activists such as Paul Okojie, setup this race centre as an open access facility. He also tried to develop opportunities for more community-led research that wasn’t just white researchers or eurocentric views deciding what was in this library.”

The centre has a unique mode of operating. “The history and heritage that we collect centres the communities whose stories they belong to and what’s important about those stories is that they come from them. Whereas in most archival institutions and in most academic or institutional libraries, it’s normally the people who do the archiving and collecting work who decide what stories are archived,” Safina said.

Archiving is overwhelmingly white, and as a result one of the least representative professions. This inevitably impacts which stories are valued and where they come from, Safina added. “We’re probably one of the biggest collectors of anti-racist activism and probably one of the only community led collecting institutions in the UK.”

The centre has a lot of oral history collections, which Safina said is deliberate. “Global majority history and heritage is passed through this oral tradition. And that’s because when we think about history in the context of empire and colonisation, we weren’t allowed to have the papers or the books. Communities are therefore very skilled at collecting in that way and it’s been an important way of preserving their history, identity, and their ancestral knowledge, but that’s not necessarily, as valued.”

On the question of what history is archived and valued, the Education Trust carried out a piece of research in 2017 that looked at 54 collecting institutions in Greater Manchester. The Trust asked how many of these institutions had been funded to work with global majority communities and how is that reflected in their archives? “While over 90% had been funded to work with different communities, less than a quarter had actually accessioned and archived anything related to their own project work with communities or outputs from heritage projects that were community led. So in 100 years’ time if people look in those archives, we’re not represented. How are you going to know about different, contemporary black and brown communities; about how we lived, what we thought, what we experienced?”

This was followed up with a research report that was published last year, titled If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes. The study asked why, after decades of diversity initiatives and funders ostensibly prioritising working with communities of colour, the heritage sector is still so white and still struggles to tell more nuanced and detailed stories about their histories.

The Centre and Trust delivers a range of different work streams, but Safina is particularly excited by the work they do with young people. “We will do sessions with young people or we’ll go into schools and the students would say ‘that sounds really similar’ or ‘that’s where my grandmother was from’. There’s that connection and sense of belonging that develops from having representative historical material.”

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