A new report recommends that the controversial statue of the Bristol slaver – demolished by BLM protesters – be permanently installed in the museum

Last month’s acquittal in Bristol court of four protesters, found not guilty of causing criminal damage after toppling the city’s statue of slave trader Edward Colston in June 2020, has polarized heritage professionals and culture in the UK. Art and legal commentators say the verdict has many implications, with the lawsuit reigniting debate over the value of disputed colonial-era public art. More historic statues could now be vandalized, according to British sculptor Nick Hornby.

Rhian Graham was accused alongside Milo Ponsford, Sage Willoughby and “others unknown” of helping to tie ropes around the statue’s neck which were used to pull it to the ground. Jake Skuse has been accused of rolling the statue to Bristol Harbour. The four pleaded not guilty to the charges at trial.

Following the trial, the independent We are the Bristol History Commission group released its report on the future of the Colston statue. The Colston Statue: What’s Next? The document, which was commissioned in September 2020 by Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, includes an investigation carried out while the statue was on display at the M Shed museum in Bristol.

Almost 14,000 people responded, with 74% of all respondents saying the statue should be housed in a museum in Bristol, while 65% support adding a plaque. to the original base. Just under half of all respondents (49%) and almost 58% of those in Bristol support the use of the plinth for temporary works or sculptures. The report went on to recommend that “Colston’s statue enter the permanent collection of Bristol City Council’s Museums Department” and above all that it be “kept in its present condition” (it remains graffiti-marked and weather-damaged). demonstrations).

The report adds: ‘We recommend that the statue be displayed, drawing on the principles and practice of the M Shed temporary exhibition where the statue lay horizontally. We recommend making sure to present the story in a nuanced, contextualized and engaging way, including information about the broader history of slavery of people of African descent.

Four protesters have been found not guilty of causing criminal damage when they toppled the statue of Edward Colston Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

“Offensive, abusive and distressing”

The statue was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest, following the killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020. The 18-foot-tall bronze statue had long been divided opinion in Bristol. Colston was a member of the Royal African Company, which dominated the slave trade in West Africa. The slaveholder, who was also a generous philanthropist, died in 1721 although the statue was erected in 1895. The battered and graffitied sculpture has since been displayed in the city’s M Shed museum.

Steven Cammiss, an associate professor at Birmingham Law School, attended the entire ten-day trial along with two other academics. Their report on The conversation The website says one of the defense’s main arguments centered around preventing the crime of public indecency. “It was Edward Colston and Bristol City Council who appeared to be on trial. The defendants and several witnesses argued that Colston’s crimes were so horrific that the continued presence of his statue was offensive, abusive and distressing. The local council’s failure to remove it, despite 30 years of petitions and demands from Bristol’s Afro-Caribbean community in particular, has also led the defense to argue that the council’s inaction amounted to misconduct. public.

Cammiss says contextualizing the statue appropriately could have prevented the work from being removed. “What really came out of the evidence was how much community concern over the Colston statue, in essence, just hit a wall.” A plaque was to be added to the plinth in 2019, explaining Colston’s involvement in the slave trade. According to Independent newspaper, an early text offered by a local historian stated that Colston had played “an active part in the enslavement of 84,000 Africans, including 12,000 children, of whom more than 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America” . But an alternative formulation, proposed by the Society of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, emphasized Colston’s charitable acts. This was opposed by Rees, who felt the text had been watered down. “If the text hadn’t been hijacked by society, I think most people in Bristol would have been happy and the statue might not have fallen,” Cammiss says.

The explanation must be as big as the statue of the problem, in the same place… A QR code or a courtesy plate is not enough

Hew Locke, artist

Whose explanation is that, anyway?

So, was the verdict the right one? “In the circumstances of this statue in this city, and what happened historically, I think [the verdict] was the right decision,” says Cammiss. “Contextualization could have made the difference; with this lack of activity, I think it was a justifiable verdict. We should hesitate to question the verdict of a jury that was properly led by law and heard all the evidence. A British curator, who preferred to remain anonymous, however called the verdict “perverse”, adding that the jurors ignored the compelling evidence of criminal damage.

Colston’s verdict has intensified the debate around the British government’s “withhold and explain” policy. Who, for example, should own the explanation, and how important should it be? A new heritage council, whose members include Trevor Phillips, the former director of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and historian Robert Tombs, is developing appropriate guidelines.

Last month, a man was arrested after climbing on Eric Gill’s statue of Prospero and Ariel outside BBC headquarters in central London and attacking it with a hammer. © PA Images/Alamy Image Bank

The lobbying organisation, the Public Statues and Sculptures Association (PSSA), is adamant that the government’s plan is the right one. “The government should double down on this approach and ensure that public sculpture is protected and valued,” say co-chairs Joanna Barnes and Holly Trusted. But artist Hew Locke, who has made works focused on problematic statuary, wonders what the “hold back and explain” policy actually means in practice. “In my opinion, the explanation should be as big as the statue of the problem, in the same place and as permanent as the statue. Otherwise it just sweeps the problem with a statue under the carpet. A QR code or a courtesy plate does not not enough,” he said.

The verdict also opened complex debates about criminal damage to public art on ethical grounds after a man was arrested last month for attacking Eric Gill’s sculpture, Prospero and Ariel, installed outside the headquarters of the BBC Broadcasting House in central London. Gill, who died in 1940, is well known as a pedophile who left details in his diary of his “sexual abuse of his daughters, sisters and dog”, according to a biography on the Tate website. Commentators have wondered how much his life should affect our judgment of his work.

“The case of Eric Gill is complex”, explains Nick Hornby. “I think there is a very clear distinction to be made between the depiction of something immoral and the immorality of an artist. It’s not simple. As #MeToo comes for Picasso – and I think rightly so – I remain in awe of his artistic genius. As an artist and a homosexual, there are huge kingdoms in the world that would consider my life immoral.

Buildings and monuments are listed for preservation by Historic England because of their historical and architectural interest, and their artistic quality is one of many factors that can contribute to their designation. Simon Hickman, senior inspector for Historic England, was also called as a witness during the trial of the Colston Four.

The PSSA also points out, meanwhile, that many of the artists behind these controversial works tend to be overlooked in the furor. Irishman John Cassidy actually created Colston’s work and was only mentioned “a few times” in court, Cammiss says.

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