A Note on Veneration
Updated: Jun 22
It seems that legacies of colonialism and slavery are finally being paralleled and positioned with reference to the white supremacy and systemic inequity experienced today. Blatant perhaps, yet the two, previously imagined as disparate, entities of oppression are linked all along. A continuation of a systemic issue never truly addressed, revised or rewritten surmises ideologies firmly rooted in a antiquated outlook and time which contemporary society wants to have you believe is far behind us. Yet, the ephemera lining our streets in Britain begs to differ. Street names, statues, buildings and even towns – all looming concrete and bronze imprints of the colonial route the UK took.
The degradation of several monuments across the UK, erected to memorialise those implicit and explicit in the slave trade, imperialism and the wider colonial goal of Britain, arose much vitriol from those opposed to these sort of active resistance tactics. Dubbed as ‘erasing history’, the removal of the statue in Bristol of slave owner and trader Edward Colston sparked a fervent debate.
Solutions to this dilemma posed by governments have of a resounding similarity – the statues will be reserved and removed if deemed offensive and celebrating oppressive forces though they must be preserved and given to museums.
I would like to expand on a few issues I see here. First of all, the purpose of a statue has to be deciphered. A statue is not simply a passive marker of history, a statue is literally immortalising an individual. They hold a position of authority; an omnipotence with valuable lessons to us in contemporary society by learning from them. Though I must ask you – on which grounds does a major protagonist of the slave trade have an authority to teach people lessons in the city of Bristol.
There is the argument that history will be forgotten if it is not recorded. Though when manifested in the larger than life bronze replica of a slave master, I think his legacy specifically can be forgotten. The way to teach future generations about the injustices and violence caused by British colonialism is not be ushering them to statues of the proponents and profiteers. This is veneration. Decolonize the curriculum and stress British malfeasance when forming a syllabus.
Now onto the theme of museums. When deciding what objects enter museums collections, there are a few factors to consider. ‘Is the object of specific cultural value?’, ‘Is the object of great artistic prowess?’, ‘Does the object offer something educational, progressive and new to the pre-existing collection?’, ‘Does the object represent the museum’s directors, ethos and patrons?’. The statue in question was made by Irish sculptor John Cassidy, an artist who is not collected by any major institution in the entire UK or Ireland outside of 1 sculpture in the John Rylands library in his adopted home city of Manchester. This could indicate that the artists craft and expertise is not the reason for its proposed acquisition. Secondly, the object would offer nothing in terms of education about the issues enshrouding the man on the plinth. There are countless contemporary BIPOC artists interrogating and tackling the proliferation of slavery legacies in the UK who can offer far more progressive, relevant and simply more interesting takes on the matter and whose art deserves to be financially backed. Finally, if the call is for these statues to be housed in national collections like the British Museum or the National Gallery – would you be comfortable with your tax money supporting the preservation and pedestalling of these figures?
Museums have to be differentiated from history textbooks. Museums are an inherently active proponent of whatever they display to the public and their patrons. The conservation of, what is simply reduced to colonial memorabilia, champions a specific history. It does not hold a mirror as an unbiased intermediary.
The issue with the canonical history that is taught at school are the authors. Teaching students one side of history and assuming it as universal, when really aligning with a nationalistic narrative prescribed by an overwhelmingly White government, is an incredibly dangerous practice.
The solution to this matter would not be to transfer these objects to a museum collection. There has to be a reimagining of idols and those immortalised. This is not an erasure of history, rather a progression of it. There is no justifiable need to have to be reminded of colonial tyranny every day on your way to work – it does not act as educational, instead it reaffirms who Britain deem worthy of immortalisation. Just as there is no need to encounter these objects when visiting museums. Preserving statues of colonial protagonists is teaching history from the language and optics of the oppressor which in itself is an oppressive praxis. These figures do not need further revering nor ubiquitous presence in collections or cities to the point they are instantly recalled.
The Bristol City Council plan to host the statue in one of their museums in the future while preserving its current status (one of defacement by BLM graffiti). I admit these examples need to be taken on a case by case basis. In this particular example, perhaps the preservation of a moment in activism history where the people came together to resist an oppressive reference point is valuable civic history to the point of preservation for future generations. However, this is certainly not the answer for all. Museums unquestionable should not be re-whitening their collections at this time by engulfing these artefacts exalting problematic figures. They need to be spaces of cultural progression and change.