How Edward Colston’s statue will be displayed in Bristol

The statue of slave trader Edward Colston is to go on public display for the first time since it was toppled from its plinth a year ago and thrown into Bristol’s docks.

And the authorities behind the new presentation said they hope the temporary display at the M-Shed museum in the city centre will be a ‘starting point’ to begin a conversation about what to do next with the statue, and with how Bristol wrestles with its past as a city at the forefront of the transatlantic slave trade.

The exhibition includes a survey and questionnaire – which people can do online and in paper form without going to the M-Shed – to collect views on the issue which suddenly thrust Bristol and its murky history at the centre of the global news agenda last June.

Because of Covid-19 rules, the free entry to the M-Shed should be booked in advance, and already the first slots on Friday morning have been booked up.

The statue was pulled from the bottom of St Augustine’s Reach next to Pero’s Bridge a few days after it was dumped there by a crowd of people attending a Black Lives Matter march on Sunday, June 7, 2020.

Within a day of it being toppled, Mayor Marvin Rees said it should be initially put on display in a museum, but the work to preserve and restore the statue – and the continuing covid pandemic – has meant it is only now going on display.

The statue is lying down on its back, on a specially crafted but fairly basic wooden structure, designed to spread the weight of the hollow bronze sculpture. The graffiti that was sprayed onto the statue both before it was toppled and afterwards, has been preserved on the statue’s face, arms, coat and leg, and the damage left unrepaired, but preserved.

John Finch, the city council’s head of culture and creative industries at Bristol City Council, said there were two reasons why the statue was not being put on display in the same upright position with which it had towered over The Centre for 125 years since it was erected in 1895.

“Firstly, the removal from the plinth and the damage that occurred to the statue going into the harbour and then being taken out, has meant that the statue is unstable,” he said.

“So we need to create the plinth to support it. The far end has been shaped very carefully to fit the statue so it’s stabilised the statue for the time being.

“And secondly, being laid flat allows people to walk around it and actually see what the statue looks like and see the damage that has taken place to it, the graffiti and get a sense of what the statue is.

“It was something we thought about carefully, but thought that this was the most appropriate way of doing it. Having it upright would threaten the stability of the statue – it could damage it,” he added.

Museum chief John Finch with the statue of Edward Colston on display in Bristol’s M-Shed
(Image: John Myers)

Ten days after the statue was felled, Bristol Live revealed how a team of museum conservators were working on the statue, drying it out, preserving the bronze and the graffiti daubed on it, along with collecting and cataloguing the Black Lives Matter demonstration signs from the day.

They also found newspapers dating from 1895 inside the statue, placed there by the foundry that cast the artwork.

The set up of the statue and the modest exhibition around it was discussed by the council’s museums chiefs and the We Are Bristol History Commission, a group of historians, academics and politicians set up by the Mayor in the weeks after the statue was toppled.

They wrestled with the question of how to display the statue – even temporarily – with concerns that restoring it to an upright position would face objections from those who had campaigned against the statue and the ‘Cult of Colston’ in the city for so many years, while there were also concerns that having it lying down would look like the statue was ‘lying in state’.

(Image: John Myers)

The location at the west end of the middle floor of the M-Shed also means people can look across the Floating Harbour to The Centre and the spot near Pero’s Bridge where he was dumped by the crowd in June 2020.

Included in the displays around the statue are just a handful of the hundreds of placards and signs that were carried by protesters on the Black Lives Matter march that day, along with information about a Bristol Live survey conducted in the days after the statue came down, which found a significant majority were pleased the statue had been removed, and wanted it preserved in a museum.

Mr Finch said the ‘critical part’ of the display and exhibition was that it would be a ‘conversation-starter’, rather than the final word on how Bristol would tell its story of Colston and the slave trade.

“The statue and the information around it provides a context for people to come in, to understand about Colston and to understand about Bristol’s perspective of Colston, for those people to have their views on the future of both the statue and the plinth,” he said.

“The critical part of the display is having that conversation with the people of Bristol. They can do that here, when they are in the display itself, however we are also conscious that people may not be able to get to M-Shed, or they might not want to visit.

(Image: John Myers)

“So therefore, we’ve ensured through virtual means, and using hard copies, that we’re going to get the survey out to people across the city and will be really targeted, so we get as broad a range of views as possible, so we get a clear perspective from the people of Bristol on what they want to happen.

“It is a really critical part of what we are doing here, getting that survey out and having that conversation so we can hear people’s views, and people can listen to the views of others as well,” he added.

Much of the exhibition around the statue tells some of the story of the campaigns against the Colston statue and the city’s so-called ‘Cult of Colston’ that was created around 150 years or more after his death by Bristol’s wealthy Victorian elite, who renamed roads after the slave trader and ultimately erected his statue in 1895.

The exhibition briefly tells how the first questioning of Colston’s deification by Bristol’s wealthy merchants and civic leaders came 100 years ago in 1920, with the publication of a book about Colston, and continued into the 1930s, into the 1970s and the 21st century.

“We realised that was a really important issue, that actually the concerns, the protests against the statue had grown, particularly over the last 20 or 30 years,” said Mr Finch.

“So the timeline maps that out, we talk briefly about Colston’s life, the erection of the statue in the late 19th century, but we focus particularly on the last 20 or 30 years, when the protests have grown and grown.

“We’re giving some key timings of when there had been interventions around the statue, where there had been concerns expressed by members of the community, because there has been a very strong perspective from certain communities that it was time for a change,” he added.

Edward Colston, who left Bristol at the age of 10 and never returned to the city to live, was a key player in the development of the Transatlantic Slave Trade as both a leading organiser in the Royal Africa Company in London and later as a member of the Society of Merchant Venturers, working to open up the legal ‘triangular trade’ routes to Bristol’s merchants.

It was members of the Society of Merchant Venturers who later created what became known as the ‘Cult of Colston’ in the 19th century, and continued to celebrate and commemorate him at annual church services involving generations of Bristol’s schoolchildren long into the 2010s.

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However, there is no mention of the Society of Merchant Venturers, or its role in the Colston story, anywhere in the exhibition or information boards.

“I think we’d rather focused on Colston, his history and the focus of that because, in a sense, the important issue there is Colston himself,” said Mr Finch.

“Obviously there are other links to other parts of the city, and there are other key groupings in the city, but this is about the statue and how we should be presenting that in the future,” he added.

Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, said: “The 7 June 2020 is undoubtedly a significant day in Bristol’s history and had a profound impact not just in our city but also across the country and around the world.

“The ‘Colston statue: What next?’ display at M Shed is a temporary exhibition which aims to start a conversation about our history. The We Are Bristol History Commission will be leading that conversation with citizens over the coming months.

“The future of the statue must be decided by the people of Bristol and so I urge everyone to take the opportunity to share their views and help inform future decisions by taking part in the survey.”

  • To find out more about the ‘Colston, What Next?’ survey, and to have your say, click here.

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