A view of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston, which was toppled during a protest on June 7, 2020 on display at the M Shed as part of the preview of ‘The Colston statue: What next?’, in Bristol, England, June 3, 2021.
Why Global Citizens Should Care
It’s been a year since a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was torn down and thrown in Bristol’s river Avon by anti-racism protesters.
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations spread across the UK last summer in reaction to George Floyd’s killing by police officer Derek Chauvin in the US, an event which sparked a global call for racial justice.
And in Bristol, the port city’s strong links to slavery were under the spotlight.
To mark the June 7 anniversary, the recovered statue has been displayed on its side at Bristol’s M Shed Museum — still daubed with protestor’s spray paint — alongside protest cards and a timeline of events.
Colston was a public figure who made a fortune in the 17th century trading slaves from West Africa and the presence of his statue in the city centre had long been a source of contention with residents, with several petitions to remove it launched over the years.
The empty plinth where the statue stood has since become both a symbol of change and the centre of a debate about how Britain should reckon with its colonial past and role in the slave trade.
At M Shed Museum the statue’s display comes with a survey for visitors, asking them to weigh in on “what happens to the statue next.”
Remnants of the British empire are dotted all over the UK and found in museums and town squares, often displayed in a manner that could be seen as celebratory, such as through statues, and campaigners have often questioned whether this is right.
According to research by Sky News, 21 controversial statues found in council wards across England, Wales, and Scotland have either been removed, are awaiting removal, or have been placed under review in the past year.
Statues under review include that of Henry Dundas in Edinburgh, where the local council has voted to add a new sign explaining his historical role linked to delaying votes to abolish the slave trade.
Elsewhere, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign by students at the University of Oxford has, since 2015, called for the removal of a statue of brutal colonial ruler Cecil Rhodes which looms over Oriel College.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign is still ongoing, but since the Colston toppling, a shift has taken place, and many of Britain’s cultural and historical institutions have taken an interest in finding ways to both recognise history while better representing the values of modern Britain.
Both officially and unofficially, artists and historical commissions are doing more to celebrate the contributions of Black and Asian Britons too.
Here are some of the most compelling ways that has happened…
1. Anti-slavery campaigner Ottobah Cugoano is commemorated with a blue plaque
Last November, the 18th century abolitionist campaigner and former slave Ottobah Cugoano, became the earliest example of a historical Black Londoner to be commemorated by an iconic blue plaque.
Blue plaques honour important figures of London’s past, and can be seen around the capital. Cugoano’s plaque is now displayed on the front of the grand Schomberg House on Pall Mall where he lived and worked after being freed.
Cugoano has been described by historian David Olusoga as a “true pioneer… the first African to demand the total abolition of slavery and one of the leaders of Georgian London’s Black community.”
The decision came as part of a wider review of London plaques being done by English Heritage, who oversees their placement and creation. The aim of the review is to improve the diversity of what and who gets memorialised.
A separate review is still in progress by the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which was commissioned by the Mayor of London’s office, and will review the capital’s landmarks.
2. “A Surge of Power” — Black Lives Matter campaigner Jen Reid’s sculpture and murals
After Colston’s statue was toppled in Bristol, an empty plinth was all that remained, leaving space for Black Lives Matter demonstrators, such as Jen Reid to deliver speeches in the days that followed. A few weeks later in July the space briefly featured a sculpture of Reid, created by the artist Marc Quinn, which caused a stir after it was installed in secret overnight.
The life-size statue, cast in black resin, portrayed Reid on the day of the protest with her right fist raised in the air and was entitled “A Surge of Power”. While it was quickly removed by the local council (they say it was erected without permissions), Reid has since starred in a BBC Radio 4 documentary Descendants, retracing the story of her ancestors.
In April, her image was used for a large-scale mural in Bristol, which she says carries a message of “positivity and unity.”
Other murals with an anti-racist message, many featuring Floyd, also cropped up in Manchester, London, and Glasgow, following the Black Lives Matter protests — although dishearteningly many have at some point been defaced with racist graffiti.
3. The National Trust published links to slavery
Last summer, the National Trust, Britain’s leading heritage conservation charity, launched a review of its properties and their links to the transatlantic slave trade — and in September they published a comprehensive list of 93 such properties and gardens.
Included in the list are Clandon Park in Surrey, and Hare Hall in Cheshire, which were both linked to wealth from plantations or the slave trade. Quarry Bank Mill, also in Cheshire, was built using family money gained from links to slavery, meanwhile the Bath Assembly Rooms were connected to the colonial and slavery economies of the 18th century.
The charity aims to provide more information about these links to visitors to improve the public’s understanding of Britain’s past.
John Orna-Ornstein, the National Trust’s director of culture and engagement added: “These histories are sometimes very painful and difficult to consider. They make us question our assumptions about the past, and yet they can also deepen and enrich our understanding of our economic status, our remarkable built heritage and the art, objects, places and spaces we have today and look after for future generations.”
Corinne Fowler, a historian involved in the research said that visitors to historical sites would be “increasingly confronted with uncomfortable truths” and that “staff and volunteers will be urged to educate the public about the imperial exploitation which has propped up many heritage sites.”
4. A host of offensive statues have been removed
A statue of a kneeling figure of a Black man carrying a sundial above his head was removed in June last year from the front of a stately home, Dunham Massey Hall, near Manchester.
The figure was described as “degrading” by locals while the National Trust, which owns the property, said the statue, which is dated to the early 1700s, had caused “upset and distress.”
A spokesperson for the charity told the BBC they didn’t want to “censor or deny the way colonial histories are woven into the fabric of our buildings,” but they decided to “move it safely from its previous location while we make plans to address it in a way that fully acknowledges the appalling histories of slavery and the slave trade.” According to the National Trust’s digital archive, the future of the piece is still being assessed.
Meanwhile, the Canal and River Trust, which looks after Britain’s waterways, removed a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan in east London’s Docklands after receiving a petition signed by more than 3000 people to do so.
5. Black Lives Matter movement topped ‘art power’ list
Fittingly, given the wave of reckoning and the movement’s influence on the museum, heritage and art world, the Black Lives Matter movement topped a London publication’s end of year list of the most influential figures in art in December 2020.
The ArtReview “power 100 list” is normally a list of individuals making waves in the cultural sector, but instead they decided it had to go the movement as a whole.
In a press release, the publication said that “long-standing issues concerning racial justice and equity” had come to dominate the public consciousness, and that in the art world “the power of the Black Lives Matter movement has impelled and accelerated change at every level.”
Change, the statement continued, had begun “in the resurgence of statue-toppling in the U.S. and across Europe, and as campaigners seek to redress injustices of the historical record; in the visibility of Black contemporary artists; in awards and appointments; in the rush by galleries to diversify their rosters; in museums rethinking who they represent and how they do it.”
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