LONDON – A statue of a 17th-century slave trader that was toppled during anti-racism protests in the English city of Bristol is being displayed in a museum, where visitors will be asked to help decide its fate.
The bronze likeness of Edward Colston was pulled from its pedestal and dumped in Bristol harbor a year ago, sparking a nationwide debate about which historical figures deserve commemoration and about Britain’s slave-trading history. City workers hauled the statue out of the water and have kept it in storage ever since.
The battered, paint-splattered statue is going on public display Friday at Bristol’s M Shed museum alongside placards from the June 7, 2020 protest. It will be on show until Sept. 5, and visitors will be asked to complete a survey about “what happened that day and what you think should happen next,” the museum said.
Responses will go to the We Are Bristol History Commission, which was set up after the protest. Options include removing the statue from public view, creating a museum or exhibition about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and restoring the statue to its plinth in the center of the city.
Some Bristolians have criticized toppling the statue as an act of historical vandalism, while others welcomed the removal of a stain on their community.
“We’re using this opportunity to find out what local people think because we have to live in this city together,” commission member Shawn Sobers, an associate professor at the University of the West of England, said.
“This display isn’t trying to be from an idealistic position or from an ideological position and celebrating or commiserating. It's trying to be balanced,” Sobers added.
The statue’s felling was part of a worldwide reckoning with racism and slavery sparked by the death of a Black American man, George Floyd, at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May 2020.
Colston was a 17th-century trader who made a fortune transporting enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas on Bristol-based ships. His money funded schools and charities in Bristol, and his name adorned streets, schools and major buildings in the city 120 miles (195 kilometers) southwest of London. Many have been either renamed or made the subject of ongoing debate.
Bristol went on to become Britain’s biggest port for slave ships during the early 18th century. Ships based in the city transported at least half a million Africans into slavery before Britain outlawed the slave trade in 1807.