Statues and the Humanities
Colston Statue Bristol

Statues and the Humanities

The Summer of 2020 will go down in history as the year which brought the virus which brought unprecedented dislocation to the world and the year which highlighted the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement triggered by ongoing state violence towards black people in western societies and ingrained inequality has had a global impact. By refusing to accept the ‘normality’ of prejudice and discrimination Black Lives Matter has encouraged us to question and reevaluate many aspects of our society and our history. This has included a re-examination of our history as a multi-cultural society, its values and what our culture chooses to remember and what it chooses to forget. These are issues which cannot be ignored and with which an education provision which prepares young people for their lives in society needs to engage with.

One of the ways societies express their values and their culture is through what they choose to commemorate. As values change and assumptions about culture come to be contested it was unsurprising that, in line with most societies across the globe, we question monuments and statues created in the past not as a denial of the past but in recognition that our interpretation of the past changes. Inevitably therefore Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and USA led to demands to reinterpret and sometimes to remove of many statues created in the past to commemorate individuals and events relating to black history.

The first statue to be removed as a result of the impact of Black Lives Matter was that of Edward Colston in Bristol and this provides a good example of how the history we teach can show how both the past impacts on the present and how changing attitudes in the present can impact on how we view the past. Edward Colston was a rich Bristolian merchant and Tory MP who made his money from British involvement in the 17th century slave trade. The statue was erected over 170 years after Colston’s death mainly to commemorate Colston’s charitable bequests. The erection of the statue itself was a particular reinterpretation of history ignoring the source of Colston’s wealth, the slave trade, which by the late 19th century most Bristolians were opposed to, and emphasising the benevolence of the city’s business elite. Values in the past as in the present do not necessarily reflect a consensus and the original decision to commission the statue did not necessarily enjoy popular support. Colston was an autocratic High Church Tory, a divisive character in his own time and the citizens of Bristol were reluctant to contribute to the costs of the statue.

The humanities with its focus on place, where statues are located, why and how they impact on us, and time, what the statue tells us about our history and changing attitudes to the past, is the subject area in schools in which the discussion on statues initiated by the Black Lives Matter movement can be explored. What do they tell us about the dark side of our history? How should this past be commemorated? Who makes decisions about memorials to the past and whose values are remembered? What does changing interpretations of the past tell us about history and how it is written? The agenda presented by Black Lives Matter is an urgent one which schools and the humanities subjects must engage with.