Histories of Empire and Colonialism: Whose Statues? Whose Stories?

by Sadia Habib

Whose Statues? Whose Stories call out poster

Bristol and beyond

The pulling down of the statue of Edward Colston on 7 June 2020 by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists in Bristol was an act of solidarity with the BLM movement, and a remarkable turning point in cultural activism and protest in the UK. One year since Colston fell, he has now re-emerged in a new space: in a museum. His statue is now – temporarily – displayed at Bristol’s M Shed.

In another important moment for the people of Bristol, they’ve been invited to take part in a conversation about the future of this now infamous statue. The statue is displayed at M Shed alongside placards from the protest, as well as with a timeline of key events before Colston fell.  The Museum, in partnership with the We Are Bristol History Commission, is keen to learn from M Shed visitors about what Bristolians think about the events that day last summer and also what should happen to the statue now.

The Museum has also provided an online space for responses to the statue, and no doubt people worldwide – connected or not to Bristol – will want to respond to the survey. After all, the infamous figure of Colston and his role in the trade of enslaved peoples is now well known nationally and globally; the iconic pictures of his statue pushed into the water went viral last summer, making him a household name.  In the year that has passed, there has been much passionate debate and discussion: we have heard a lot from politicians, media commentators and cultural activists throughout the UK and beyond who’ve been ardently sharing their perspectives on contested statues of empire and colonialism.

The zeitgeist of the post-Colston period

I’ve been working with colleagues on a research project at the Centre for Dynamic Ethnicity (CoDE) studying the changing shape of cultural activism, with the main focus being exploring perspectives on processes of contesting and removing statues that memorialise histories of slavery and colonialism.  The research compares the contestation of statues cross-nationally, in places such as Britain, South Africa, the US, Martinique and Belgium.  The preliminary findings of the research were shared in our presentation at the British Sociological Conference in April. Wearing my hat as the young people’s coordinator at Manchester Museum on a project entitled Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH), I was keen to specifically research young people’s stories about statues in their towns and cities. I wanted to learn more about young people’s experiences. For example, how do young people feel about the figures memorialised in stone in the spaces they call home? What narratives are young people keen to share with one another? What do they think should happen to these statues? How do they talk about these reminders of the histories of empire and colonialism? And importantly what can we – as educators and museums staff – learn from young people who can perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the post-Colston period in UK history? After seeking ethical approval from the University of Manchester, I put a call out for young people interested in taking part in the research which I entitled Whose Statues? Whose Stories?

Workshop spaces were immediately taken by keen young people

Whose Statues? Whose Stories?

In the first session, young people reflected and discussed with one another stories about the statues of colonialism and empire in their towns and cities. Some had taken photographs of the statues prior to this session and had uploaded them to padlet. The young people presented their own perspectives on place identities, statues in their towns and cities, mainstream dominant narratives about the historical figures, as well as what stories they thought should be told about these statues.  The following week in the second session, Dr Meghan Tinsley, Dr Chloe Peacock, Dr Ruth Ramsden-Karelse and Professor Gary Younge were invited to share research about statues from a historical perspective and in a global context. The third session brought along two talented wordsmiths Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan and Muneera Pilgrim who impressed the young people with creative writing advice and inspiration; the fourth and final session resulted in young people performing some of the creative responses they had been working over the course of the sessions. After the last session one of the young people explained “I think I shed a tear or two listening to everybody recite their amazing work. Such a powerful session and it was so nice to hear everybody’s feedback. I left with a sense of pride and accomplishment, after doubting my artistic ability”.

Reflection and learning

It was evident to me that young people’s voices remained generally unheard or marginalised in the heated debates about statues, and yet they had been at the forefront of the cultural activism and BLM protests throughout the UK post-Colston. After the Whose Stories? Whose Statues? sessions, the young people highlighted that even though there had been so much media coverage over the past year after Colston was taken down, there were no spaces for young people to reflect upon the contested nature of statues of empire and colonialism. 

The young people who participated in the sessions had welcomed safe spaces to explore the discourses around statues in nuanced ways with other young people, with researchers, and with spoken word artists:

“I had thought about them before, and had touched on the issue in some university modules but I had never considered the complexity of removing the statues themselves and how the removal has to be thought about, rather than just petitioning for them to be taken down. So this workshop provided me with a new outlook”.

“Yes, thought about them a lot in the summer where Britain’s unhealthy proximity to statues was evident! however the workshop provided me with so much more education”.

The sessions were spaces for critical reflection and mutual learning, as the young people shared their stories and learned from one another, and benefitted from hearing from the poets and the academic researchers, whilst we all learned from the young people. One of the young people described the atmosphere as “creative and inclusive”, and others commented on the depth of learning:

“I loved how encouraging each workshop was and it was a really positive experience. I felt really comfortable every session and was able to learn so much from everyone else attending”.

“How engaging the conversations were and bouncing off others who had such great interest in these issues. Being inspired by the work by others in the project as well as the guest speakers who gave such intellectual and powerful contributions”.

Presenting at the BSA Conference 2021

“I loved the way the workshop was hosted and run to ensure people felt comfortable speaking and sharing opinions, Suhaiymah and Muneera were also amazing and insanely talented and it was so fun to learn and listen to them”.

“I really liked the camaraderie, it felt like a really safe space to discuss these issues with a group of people who were also really passionate about this topic. It also felt very supportive”.

There is still so much learning to be done, and an urgent need for museums and schools to provide spaces for young people to share their stories about how their identities and belongings are impacted by their experience of what is revered in the public realm. As Gary Younge recently wrote in The Guardian, “in Britain, we seem to have a peculiar fixation with statues, as we seek to petrify historical discourse, lather it in cement, hoist it high and insist on it as a permanent statement of fact, culture, truth and tradition that can never be questioned, touched, removed or recast. This statue obsession mistakes adulation for history, history for heritage and heritage for memory”.

How do we disrupt this peculiar fixation? How do we continue to question the mainstream versions of history we learn in schools? I hope we can build on the courage of young cultural activists in the Colston moment and after.  As a museum it is our responsibility to provide opportunities for younger generations to engage in individual and collective critical reflection about the ways that social institutions doggedly preserve history and heritage, and importantly how this might impacts young people’s sense of belonging to Britain.

Presenting at the BSA Conference 2021

Coming up next

In the next few weeks, we will be developing opportunities for more young people to join safe spaces to explore identities and belongings, as well sharing publications for young people, teachers and heritage staff:

  • On the 21st of July, one of our young Manchester Museum OSCH Collective members will lead a poetry workshop Belonging: Space & Place for young people to explore themes of identities, decolonisation, as well as statues of empire & colonialism.
  • Watch out for a call out for young people to contribute to a zine entitled Whose Statues? Whose Stories?
  • On our social media, we will be sharing recordings of powerful poems by two young people from the Manchester Museum OSCH Collective that will also feature in a CoDE video with Dr Ruth Ramsden-Karelse.
  • A Runnymede briefing will provide policy recommendations – The Changing Shape of Cultural Activism: Legislating Statues in the Context of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

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