How do we Learn History by Staring at Statues?

The ongoing “debate” about Edward Colston’s statue

Matt Mason

--

In June 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests, a statue of Edward Colston was torn down in Bristol, southwest England. For people who don’t know who this is, despite whatever good he might have done (schools, poor houses, almshouses, public buildings, hospitals), his statue located in such a prominent position in the centre of Bristol was a matter of some controversy. Why? Because so much of his philanthropy came from the profits of cross-Atlantic slavery.

Photo by John McMahon on Unsplash

Bristol City Council admitted that for years before the day the statue was torn down, they had been sent many requests about the inappropriateness of its continued prominence. They also said they had been debating its removal for some time.

And yet it was never removed by the city council. This is despite that the heritage charity set up to honour him decided to disband in 2020. Also, the theatre nearby changed its name from The Colston Hall to Bristol Beacon the same year — both of which happened before the BLM protest that toppled the statue.

Now, the statue is going up in a museum in the city. Appropriately, this will be M Shed, a museum dedicated to protests in the building that previously held the Bristol Industrial Museum.

The right-wing media in the UK did exactly what we expected of them — whipped up a frenzy over “attacks on British culture”. They soon formulated an argument that statues should be left up because they teach us about history.

Well, no…

This is the inscription from the Edward Colston statue:

Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city. A.D. 1895

Three things stand out: 1) It was set up as a “memorial” not a lesson. 2) It tells us nothing about what he did. 3) It was erected over 170 years after his death.

What does any of this teach us about him or what he did? Where is the nuance in discussing his contribution to cross-Atlantic slavery? There are many more effective ways of learning about history — talks from local history societies, reading a book, or hell, just open Wikipedia! It’s free and you…

--

--

Matt Mason

Freelance writer. Medium is my place to muse and vent the serious and the frivolous: asexuality, childfree living, gaming, society, satire and more.