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Colston’s Travels, or Should We Talk About Statues?

Branscome, E; (2021) Colston’s Travels, or Should We Talk About Statues? ARENA Journal of Architectural Research , 6 (1) , Article 1. 10.5334/ajar.261. Green open access

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The toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol on 7th June 2020, and its dispatch into the waters of the nearby harbour – a defiant act of protest by members of Britain’s ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement – helped to raise international awareness that far too many statues and other artefacts within the urban realm carry troubling histories, even if their contentious associations might have been forgotten. Acting as quasi-Trojan horses, they can appear benign enough within their cultural landscapes while yet silently continuing to reinforce socio-economic inequalities. This essay investigates the incident in Bristol to offer a wider reassessment of those cultural legacies now seen as ‘difficult heritage’, particularly those associated with slave trading in the former British Empire. It looks at how the cultural value of the Colston statue, when viewed over time in relation to material and ideological conditions in Bristol as a declining port city, creates a real tension in their meaning today given that they so obviously represent a highly selective construction of local history. The increasingly vociferous demand globally for the removal of such sculptures, especially by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, exposes the ongoing evasiveness and indecisiveness of official bodies in dealing with such artefacts. While the final outcome of the toppling of the Colston statue remains in the balance in terms of its legal resolution, the role of urban art as part of activism and protest clearly demands more attention. This essay traces the emergence of debates about ‘difficult heritage’ as a combination of social performance and civil disobedience. As this kind of struggle continues, the urgent questions become who should be allowed to determine what is considered history and how should it be displayed in our urban public spaces?

Type: Article
Title: Colston’s Travels, or Should We Talk About Statues?
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
DOI: 10.5334/ajar.261
Publisher version: https://doi.org/10.5334/ajar.261
Language: English
Additional information: This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by/4.0/.
Keywords: Edward Colston, Statues, Monuments, Public Realm, Bristol, Slave Trade, Black Lives Matter, Difficult Heritage
UCL classification: UCL
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of the Built Environment
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL BEAMS > Faculty of the Built Environment > The Bartlett School of Architecture
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10133216
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