Dr Laura Cleaver, senior lecturer in manuscript studies and principal investigator of the European Research Council-funded CULTIVATE MSS project at the Institute of English Studies, on why sending unwanted statues to museums isn’t necessarily a solution.

The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston and its subsequent deposit in Bristol harbour as part of the Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June attracted a huge amount of attention. Many commentators have since suggested that such statues, celebrating those who participated in and profited from the slave trade and other colonial atrocities, should be removed from public places and sent to museums where they can be contextualised. This solution may seem to solve an immediate problem, but it raises others that point to the need for both systemic change and significant investment in the cultural heritage sector.

Interpreted in a Bristol museum, Colston’s statue could be the focus of a powerful display about public history and its contemporary power. However, once this moment has passed it could also easily become simply one more statue to be stored and conserved in museums where resources are extremely stretched. Indeed, museums and galleries are not short of Victorian objects, most of which are not on display because they are not held to be ‘great art’. 

While many claims about the value of statues for the study of history have been made in recent weeks, I suggest that a month ago more people would have been able to identify Michelangelo’s David than John Cassidy’s Edward Colston. This in turn raises the questions of who determines the canon of art objects that are displayed and taught in schools and universities, and what purposes the canon serves. 

Art historians have long recognised that the traditional canon reflects the white men who were predominantly its creators, and privileges European culture, and that this has been widely exported as a product of European colonialism. It is almost 25 years since Christopher Steiner asked ‘Can the canon burst?’ in The Art Bulletin, and more recently Titus Kaphar has eloquently demonstrated that the focus of scholarship has accentuated the problem by ignoring or whitewashing black figures in art. 

In recent decades, attempts have been made to include material from non-dominant cultures, as well as more material by women, in the curriculum, though all too often this is inserted into the frameworks built with ideas about European art or bolted on as an afterthought. Despite many good intentions, the canon has proved remarkably resistant to change. In parallel to this, although there has been much talk of a need for increasing diversity, museum curators and academics remain overwhelmingly white and drawn from a limited socio-economic background, particularly at the higher levels.  

More diverse voices in museums and academia can only enrich our understanding of our material past and its ability to serve contemporary audiences. 2019 government statistics for England suggest that black people continue to be less likely to visit museums and galleries than those from other ethnic groups. Museums and education need more resources, but these also need to be focused on amplifying voices that have to date not been heard in order to reach new audiences. 

As someone whose research focuses on the fragmentary survivals of the medieval past, my instinct is to preserve as much as we can. Yet we cannot keep everything and the choices we make in preservation reveal our values. Good will, so far, has not proved to be enough to develop spaces that allow black and other non-dominant perspectives to thrive and these voices to shape the cultural heritage sector. Put Colston’s statue into a museum without wider structural change, and the risk is that it will eventually sink without trace more permanently than it did in Bristol harbour. 

Dr Laura Cleaver is senior lecturer in manuscript studies and principal investigator of the European Research Council (ERC)-funded CULTIVATE MSS project at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.