Exhibitions Exploring Overshadowed Histories: Protecting and Correcting Collective Memory through Commemorative Art

Posted on: April 22, 2024 by

This article contains descriptions of violence which some readers may find upsetting.

Colston Statue at M Shed

In March of this year, the infamous statue of transatlantic slave trader Edward Colston went on permanent display in an exhibition about the history of protest in the Bristol People gallery at M Shed.  The display follows a decision by the Bristol City Council in response to a survey which showed that the majority of residents believed the statue should be displayed in a museum — instead of on its original plinth — where more historical and contextual information could be provided.  With this survey in mind, M Shed’s goal was to create a space that both contextualised the history of the figure and the statue while offering a space for conversations on racial justice.  To do this, M Shed decided to centre the views of the people, complete with quotes, photography and protest signs from the 7 June 2020 protest.  Further, they enclosed the statue in a glass case to preserve the graffiti painted on it from the protest.

Spirited by Laku Neg

Meanwhile, over in Cardiff, the National Museum has curated an exhibition titled Reframing Picton, which is on display until January 2025.  For background, Picton was placed in charge of the British Colony of Trinidad in 1797 and was appointed governor in 1801.  During this governorship, he brutally punished and tortured many people, but particularly enslaved people.  In 1801, he infamously tortured Luisa Calderón, a free mixed African and European child, after she was accused of theft.  The torture was used specifically to get her to confess to the crime.  The method of torture was piqueting, where a victim would be suspended by one wrist, with the other wrist tied to their opposite foot, while the second bare foot was exposed onto a narrow spike, forcing the victim’s full body weight onto the spike.  In fact, this mode of torture was so commonly associated with Picton that it became known as ‘Picton-ing’.  In 1804, Picton was indicted for authorising the illegal mode of obtaining a confession.  At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear whether Spanish or British law applied after Britain had conquered Trinidad.  Garnering a confession via torture was clearly illegal under British policy, but it was less clear under Spanish law.  Subsequently, Picton was brought to trial in 1806, where he was found guilty by a British jury.  However, upon retrial in 1808, a special verdict was held, noting that judicial torture was legal in Trinidad.  Ultimately, he was lauded as a war hero for being killed at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, effectively overshadowing his cruel legacy.

The museum commissioned artists from Trinidad to contextualise the museum’s portrait of Thomas Picton and highlight the voices of the victims of his cruel governorship.  Rather than destroying or hiding the portrait in storage, Reframing Pictonexposes’ the true history.

Portrait of Thomas Picton

These decisions by museums on how to treat controversial commemorative art fall under two interesting legal frameworks: the first is England’s “retain and explain” policy.  In October 2023, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Historic England issued guidance on this policy to custodians and owners faced with requests to remove heritage assets.  The guidance further applies to publicly accessible commemorative works that are facing calls for removal or relocation.  Per the guidance, “explaining” is not limited to contextualisation through a placard, but there is a preference for the object to remain in situ.  Yet, in the instance of the Colston statue and a statue of Picton in Cardiff (though the policy does not apply in Wales), keeping the objects in situ was not the best possible solution to adequately “retain and explain,” as they require more comprehensive historical context, and the celebratory nature of the placement is inappropriate.  If that is the case, perhaps custodians under fire could look to these exhibitions for resolution inspiration.

The second framework is through a human rights lens.  These exhibitions serve as interesting examples for an Art Antiquity and Law article by Peter Cumper and Tom Lewis on the ways in which human rights principles can shape what we do with controversial commemorations, as the framework can aid in striking a balance between both collective memory and free expression.

On a high level, collective memory can be described as memory affixed within a social structure that supports a group’s identity.  Memory, an “essential component” to identity, Cumper and Lewis write, can be shaped by the narratives transmitted through commemorative art.  Usually, commemorative art transmits the collective memory of a dominant group, instilling and perpetuating a stripped-back and typically whitewashed history over the real story and ultimately disrupting the collective memory of a marginalised group.

Is collective memory a human right?  While the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) does not protect collective memory, the European Court on Human Rights (ECtHR) has considered that, in some cases, the right to collective memory might fall under Article 8, which protects the right to respect for privacy and family life.  This was so in Perinçek v. Switzerland, where the ECtHR held that a group of people that suffered historical trauma have the right under Article 8 to protect collective memory.

How can we combat the commemoration instilled by the dominant group?  Some believe the answer is the total removal of the art to rectify the collective memory of a marginalised group.  From a human rights perspective though, the removal of such art can constitute a violation of ECHR Article 10, which provides the right to freedom of expression.  When the rights to enjoying public spaces without discrimination is in opposition with free expression, a balance of rights must be struck.   For commemorative art in the UK, where the legacy of slavery and white supremacy is still deeply felt, protecting and correcting collective memory may outweigh the importance of the expression, namely, the celebration and heroisation of these figures, rendered by way of commemorative art.

The human rights balancing framework can inspire future resolutions to the commemorative art debate.  To do this, the commemorative art must be used to create a dialogue on history, whether by creating a space for them within a museum context or in situ.

As it relates to Picton, several different scenarios have occurred: some strike this balance while others don’t yet.  Reframing Picton provides an effective space for fostering a conversation on reckoning with an imperialist past and the trauma that is engrained into society still.  It actively brings in voices from Trinidadian artists and has created new commemorative works to honor the victims.  It brings forth new expression, while coinciding with the mnemonic rights of Article 8, and simultaneously maintains Article 10’s freedom of expression in the sense that it does not censor the portrait.  In this case, the portrait being kept in storage or destroyed would do little to educate museumgoers on Picton’s brutal history.  The exhibition not only centres the victims and voices of Trinidad, but also contextualises and educates on the true history.

The exhibition can be compared to the treatment of the Picton Monument, an 80-foot-tall obelisk in Carmarthen.  Though it is now contextualised with descriptive and educational placards, it still celebrates Picton as a figure by the very nature of the work and location.  Importantly, one can see the obelisk from miles away, but obviously not the placards.  It doesn’t appear that this would strike a balance or a constructive dialogue in the way that the exhibition does.

Two other statues of Picton have come under scrutiny as well, with varying results.   The monument to Picton in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has been maintained, despite calls for its removal.  However, there is nothing providing the historical context to meet the “explain” portion.   Finally, in response to public demand and a city council vote, the 10-foot marble statue of Picton has been removed from Cardiff City Hall’s Welsh Heroes collection.

This comparison also raises a question about the differences of the types of works and whether they warrant a different type of treatment in today’s context.  Statues are typically created to celebrate historical figures and are oftentimes created long after the figure’s life.  Meanwhile, though not in every circumstance, portraiture typically involves the sitter’s collaboration and is often completed during the sitter’s lifetime.  The portrait of Picton was likely completed within his lifetime, as it is dated back to approximately 1812.  This portrait in particular is possibly more commemorative than celebratory, like a statue or giant obelisk.  While the nature of the commemorative artwork is distinct, the resolution can arguably be the same under these guiding principles.  Despite the historical differences between statues and portraits, the exhibitions provide an interesting framework for future museums to “retain and explain”, while simultaneously correcting collective memory and maintaining free expression.

Are any of these methods or responses inherently better than another?  Well, Picton is commonly remembered more for being a war hero, rather than a brutal “Tyrant of Trinidad.”  Similarly, the Colston statue was erected to celebrate his philanthropy towards the city of Bristol.  The museum exhibitions are nice examples of the balancing of Article 8 and Article 10, because they reinforce, protect and correct collective memory, so that Picton is not simply seen as a war hero, and Colston a philanthropist, while simultaneously maintaining the original works.  Plus, the museums provide a wealth of information that could fuel conversations on the past, racial justice and more.  Of course, treatment of each commemorative artwork of controversial figures should be analysed on a case-by-case basis.  However, museum exhibitions are proving to be promising paths to protecting the various interests at play.

Image Credits:

Statue of Edward Colston at the M Shed, 2021, CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Photo of Spirited by Laku Neg, 2022 as part of Reframing Picton, taken by Victoria Maatta, 2024.

Photo of Removed Portrait of Thomas Picton by Sir Martin Archer Shee, 1812, taken by Victoria Maatta, 2024.