One Year Since The Black Lives Matter Protests | What Has Been The Aftermath in the Art World?
Bristol Museums have recently announced that the Edward Colston statue that was toppled in June 2020 during the Black Lives Matter protests will be displayed in a timeline of last summer’s events. What was the UK’s reaction to the BLM movement, and what impact did this have on the art world?
The statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century merchant and slave trader, was toppled on June 7th in Bristol, during the Black Lives Matter protests. The protests were a result of the murder of George Floyd by an American police officer in Minnesota the month prior.
After the Colston statue was torn down by protestors, a sculpture of BLM protester Jen Reid was erected. The statue was created by artist Marc Quinn after Reid had been photographed standing on the empty plinth of Colston’s statue during the protests.
While the new statue was removed by Bristol City Council 24 hours after it was put in place, it acted as an installation by both Quinn and Reid, designed to continue the conversation about racism. According to Marvin Rees, Bristol’s mayor, the artist had no permission to install the sculpture, and “the future of what is installed in that plinth must be legally decided by the people of Bristol.”
Bristol Museums recently announced that starting on June 4, the Colston statue will go on display alongside placards from the protest and a timeline of the events that led to June 7 2020 – the day the statue was toppled.
However, the museums’ exhibition and conservation of the statue has led many to question its place in modern art spaces. A coalition known as Save Our Statues has argued on Twitter that the Colston exhibition is a ‘celebration of criminal violence’.
Meanwhile, Professor Tim Cole, from the Department of History at the University of Bristol commented that the display is not focused on creating a comprehensive narrative on Colston or the history of the slave trade in Bristol. Instead, it intends to continue the conversation that was started with the BLM protests and allow the people of Bristol to share their opinions on the future of the statue.
On June 9, the statue of Robert Milligan was removed by authorities from outside the Museum of London Docklands. Its removal hoped to recognise the wishes of protestors and acknowledge the problematic historical truth that was linked to the figure.
During the protests in London, the Winston Churchill statue that stands in Parliament Square was covered with graffiti. While London’s mayor Sadiq Khan argued that the city of London owed part of its history and wealth to its role in the slave trade, a review of whose legacies are celebrated in street names, statues or memories should be considered. However, he also commented that the statue of Churchill will not be included in said review, defending that ‘nobody was perfect’ and therefore people should be educated about key historical figures.
Two weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, Oxford University’s Oriel College announced that after student pressure, the College’s governors had voted in favour of a plan to take down its statue of British Imperialist, Cecil Rhodes. The ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ protest group have been campaigning for the statue’s removal since 2015, with the administration finally giving in to the pressures of the BLM protests.
However, after all that progress, it was announced in May 2021, that due to financial challenges, the Rhodes statue will not be removed. According to the College’s governing body, it could take many years to remove the statue without any promising result. While the vote to take down the statue was supported by a majority of the college’s commission, no legal process to relocate the colonial memorials will begin in the coming years.
Another initiative was created surrounding the issues of slavery-related statues, as the City of Edinburgh proposed that the statue of Henry Dundas remains in its places, but with a new plaque dedicated to the people that were enslaved due to his actions. In March 2021, the city’s Council development management committee also approved the installation of a plaque in the Melville Monument, that will outline his transgressions.
While the City of Edinburgh’s council feel pleased by their actions, it begs the question of whether a text acknowledging the tragic experiences of those who were enslaved is still ethical? Isn’t conserving a monument dedicated to slave traders still commemorating their life? Are authorities really striving to make a change, or is the plaque’s installation just lip service?
ONE YEAR LATER…
Early this year, Sadiq Khan announced that 15 members will take part in a new Landmark Commission, a group focusing on creating greater diversity across London – by raising awareness on existing statues, street names and memorials. The panelists include notable members from fields in architecture, arts, business sectors, some of which including actor Riz Ahmed, architecture critic Robert Bevan, social rights activist Tovin Aghetu and founder of the Queer Bible Jack Guinness.
The Commission was announced in June 2020, in the wake of the BLM protests. Khan argues that the majority of London’s street names, statues and memorials reflect Victorian Britain, and therefore, he wants to review London’s public realm. This is to ensure that the city’s full story is properly understood, commemorating every community that has made the capital what it is. In doing so, the Landmark Commission hopes to increase BAME representation, as well as that of women, LGBTQ+ and disabled groups.
In response to the BLM protests that took place globally last year, the City of London Corporation will convene a task force to assess historical monuments and their legacies. They have recommended the removal of two statues that decorate the Guildhall building – those of William Beckford and Sir John Cass.
According to the City of London’s Policy Chair, Catherine McGuinness, assessing and removing statues linked to slavery is a milestone in the journey to transform London into a ‘more inclusive and diverse city’.
The events that took place last year after the death of George Floyd have placed a spotlight on the historical context of British museums and art institution’s artefacts, their heritage and their origins. In the case of the British Museum, for example, many artefacts were looted or removed by British colonial troops – the most notable artefacts being the Benin Bronzes and the Elgin Marbles.
British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare argues that the Benin Bronzes should be returned to Nigeria and a 3D printed copy should be displayed in London. He also beliefs that museums should reflect the complex multicultural world history, and tell their story, even if it is controversial.
Whether a museum was linked directly or indirectly to the slave trade can be addressed nowadays. It will not be fixed, history cannot be erased, but it can help enlighten people. Explaining to museum visitors the museum’s background is a form of providing knowledge and creating awareness. It creates a conversation, instead of avoiding the issue.
The heritage sector in the UK has now felt the obligation to create a national guidance that will aim to put in practice the government’s ‘retain and explain’ policy. This means that anyone who wishes to remove a historic statue will need planning permission to do so, and heritage will be ‘explained’ for future generations’ historic understanding.
However, cultural institutions are not only focused on following government guidance, but some have also begun to diversify the workplace at the entry-level, to nurture a more diverse sector.
During this past year, the National Museums of Liverpool have committed to raise the voice of the International Slavery Museum (ISM), in order to provide documentation on African history pre-slavery and to inform on the legacy of transatlantic slavery in the UK. They have also established a Black Lives Matter Task Force, and appointed an in-residence historian to undertake an evaluation of the institution, and aim for a more transparent work structure.
Meanwhile, the Science Museum Group and the Imperial War Museums have increased their focus on developing a more diverse and inclusive workforce, and Glasgow Life is working with Museums Galleries Scotland, to launch a consultation that will analyse how museums in Scotland can provide a better representation of colonial history.
The tragic events that occurred last year have kickstarted a necessary conversation that was hidden behind the UK’s cynic bureaucratic barrier, for example, debates surrounding the toppling and painting of statues. While it can be controversial to defend the trashing of cultural heritage, in this case, public outrage has pressured British institutions to act. Hiring processes are being changed to be more inclusive, assessments of cultural dissemination are being launched to properly examine the information that is provided to the public, and a new determination exists when dealing with a problematic history.
This year has experienced a lot of change, and it is clear that governments, cultural institutions and the public cannot remain in contempt, and ignore our foundations. We must educate ourselves to improve as it has been proven, that ignorance is not a viable option.