Who we choose to remember

Today’s guest blog is from Professor Tim Cole – chair of the We Are Bristol History Commission, Professor of Social History and Director of the Brigstow Institute at the University of Bristol.

One of the many things that we’ve learnt over the last year is that monuments still matter.

Who and what is remembered (and not remembered) on the streets of our cities is very much a live question. A year on from the toppling of the Colston Statue, it feels timely to take stock.

Over the last few months, the We are Bristol History Commission have been working with staff at M Shed to create a temporary display that gives the city a chance to see the statue again alongside some of the many Black Lives Matter placards that were placed around the plinth last June.

This temporary display offers a chance to learn a little more about the history of Edward Colston and the rise and fall of the statue. But we also wanted to invite the city to participate in the ongoing conversation about the events of last June and the future of the statue and plinth.

We’d love visitors to M Shed, as well as those visiting the virtual digital exhibition, to reflect on how their thoughts and feelings have changed over the course of the last year. We are also keen to hear what they’d like the museum to do with its most infamous recent acquisition, as well as what we as a city might do with the now empty plinth. We hope it will be an exhibition that prompts questions.

For me, history is first and foremost always about asking questions of the past. That is why we have organised the History Commission around a series of questions that we ask of, and with, the city:

  1. What have we remembered?
  2. Where have we come from?
  3. What have we made?
  4. How have we lived?
  5. What have we believed?
  6. What have we fought for and fought over?

We’d love that first question to be in the thoughts and on the lips of the city this summer. While it starts by asking what we have remembered, it leads to a why question: why have we remembered some, and forgotten others? As you see the paint-covered statue on display in M Shed, you might want to ask why Colston was honoured in central Bristol in the 1890s, so many years after his death?

As you leave M Shed, keep asking those questions. What and who have we remembered on the streets and in the squares of our city? Why do you think we have chosen to remember some and forgotten others?

In June, the History Commission will be launching its ‘Bridging History’ website that will host a range of activities in which the whole city can get involved. One is an invitation to be a ‘monument detective’, to be someone who asks questions of what and who is remembered in the statues, plaques, street art and street names in Bristol, what and who is missing and what we as a city should do about it?

Symbols aren’t everything, but they still matter.