Was anyone else dismayed at the sorry spectacle of it? Of Colston’s statue being dragged, feet first, out of Bristol Harbour by a crane? Because that was my immediate, emotional reaction this morning.
But it’s not about me. I have no lived experience of racism. Many of those who tore down the statue on 7 June do. And they made their feelings clear: Colston belongs at the bottom of the harbour, as invisible as the hundreds of thousands of enslaved human beings thrown overboard, after perishing during the hell-on-earth that was the middle passage. Remember them, not Colston.
Because this is not a debate. This is not even an education. This is sheer horror, pain and rage coalescing around a symbol of atrocity at a time of global reckoning. It’s raw and it’s alive and it’s now. And I think that’s why I feel so perturbed at the rush to retrieve the fetid thing from the Avon mud and begin the process of museumification. It feels obscene. It feels disrespectful to those who rose up to tear it down.
Yes, of course museums are also about the history that is happening now, and the statue’s watery fate is part of the story. But can we just slow down a bit? Allow some time to process this moment and what it feels like, to really experience it. Before we consign the statue to some abstract idea of ‘history’. Before we plonk it in a sanitised gallery space so we can play the voyeur, examining its marks and dents and muttering about it over our lattes in the museum cafe.
I know the people of Bristol – who have wanted the thing gone for decades – and their wonderful museum will handle the matter sensitively, and consult with those most affected before deciding what to do. For me at least (someone less affected), if you’re going to display any physical evidence of this month’s events in a museum, display the empty plinth that the statue was torn off. That might be the truest representation of this moment.
So forgive me if I humbly disagree, on this occasion, with the mighty David Olusoga. I don’t think a museum can give the necessary context to the Colston statue, at least not yet. The best context is the one already given by the protesters – and it’s cold, wet and dark down there.