The display of a toppled statue of a 17th-century slave trader at a Bristol museum has renewed controversy over monuments to problematic figures in the United Kingdom. The statue in question, a monument to Edward Colston, was toppled and thrown into a harbor last summer by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol, where it had been on public view since 1895. It has now gone on view at the M Shed museum, an institution dedicated to the city’s history.
According to a report by the Guardian, members of a group called Save Our Statues are seeking to have the Colston statue put back on view in its original location. The group has been organizing to buy tickets to the museum in bulk in an effort to keep visitors from coming to see the statue. In a statement posted to Twitter on Monday, Save Our Statues said that the protest “is a stand for due process” and “the display in its current format is a celebration of criminal violence and mob rule.”
The statue is on view lying down in the M Shed, and it is accompanied by a timeline that mentions its toppling in June 2020. The historian David Olusoga said on the occasion of the statue’s debut at the M Shed that it is “the most important artifact you could select in Britain if you wanted to tell the story of Britain’s tortuous relationship with its role in the Atlantic slave trade.”
A plaque installed by an unknown party has appeared at the site of the protest and the statue’s felling. The marker reads, in part, “At this spot, during worldwide anti-racism protests, a statue celebrating the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston was thrown into the harbour by the people of Bristol.” In addition, the plaque features lines written by the 2020 Bristol City Poet Vanessa Kisuule: “You came down easy in the end. / As you landed / A piece of you fell off, broke away, / And inside, nothing but air. / This whole time, you were hollow.”
The statue’s toppling last summer reverberated through the British art world. Artist John Akomfrah said at the time, “I’ve recorded uprisings since the 1980s, but I was slightly stunned.” London-based sculptor Hew Locke told ARTnews he was “amazed” by the event, adding, “It was the kind of thing I never thought I’d see in my lifetime. This piece has been on my mind as a problem for years.”
After it was felled, the Colston statue was briefly replaced by a sculpture of a protestor created by artist Marc Quinn. That work was removed after just 24 hours on view, as it had not been installed by way of official city channels. At the time, artist Thomas J. Price penned an essay the Art Newspaper about the sculpture by Quinn, who is white. “A genuine example of allyship could have been to give the financial support and production facilities required for a young, local, Black artist to make the temporary replacement,” Price wrote.