This afternoon I spoke on BBC Radio Suffolk about issues connected with history and commemoration in the wake of the destruction of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol yesterday (listen here from time signature 3:15:43). It is important not to confuse history with commemoration, which is a conscious act to elevate and privilege one particular narrative about the past – for example through a monumental object like a building or statue. Human beings need narratives about their past, but commemoration is not always helpful to doing history; history is about an ever-evolving appreciation of the complexities of the past based on unearthing and interpreting the evidence. Commemoration can be an obstacle to the work of the historian because it holds in place immobile and sclerotic views of the past, long after historians have advanced the argument well beyond such outdated views. For this reason I am somewhat sceptical of monumental acts of commemoration, especially those that elevate individuals as icons; such memorials will always be targets for those who dissent from the narrative the monument is trying to promote and, in the case of Colston, the monument starts to look very ugly indeed in the context of greater awareness of the slave trade and the voices and experiences of minorities. The local authorities’ failure to listen to BAME voices over many years of campaigns to put the statue in context led directly to the events of 7 June.
The fate of Edward Colston’s statue is a salient reminder of the dangers of commemoration, and the distance that often exists between commemoration and history.