Learn from history, don't delete it

Colston Hall (image from Wikipedia)
I'm coming towards the end of two years spending two days a week working at Bristol University. I've had a wonderful time, and have come to love this little gem of a city, getting to know it far better than I did before. One thing that has become obvious is the way that some Bristolians are torn apart by their heritage. Because this is a city that was, to some degree, built on two trades that are now abhorrent - the slave trade and tobacco.

As you go around the city, there are names you often encounter: Colston and Wills. The first refers to Edward Colston, a prominent slave trader and the Wills dynasty was behind the eponymous tobacco company, now part of Imperial Tobacco. Such is the negative feeling that there is currently a petition (2136 signatures at the time of writing) to have the city's premier music venue, Colston Hall, renamed. But I think those who support the petition are wrong.

You don't make the past go away by hiding it - but you can prevent lessons being learned by doing so. History is fundamentally important: I wish it got more priority in schools. There's a reason that Auschwitz was not obliterated. The past should not be forgotten.

There is, of course, a big difference in feel between a former concentration camp and a building that apparently glorifies someone once involved in an occupation that we now despise. However, I don't think it would be right for Bristol to attempt to sanitise itself this way. It's an action driven by guilt, and guilt for something that happened in your city's past is a waste of energy. Instead, I suggest this should be turned  into something positive. We shouldn't be petitioning for Colston and Wills to be forgotten. It would be far better if the city insisted that major buildings bearing such names should be required to have a prominent, permanent exhibition explaining where the money came from, and at what cost.

That's what history is for. Not something to feel guilty about, apologise for and then attempt to erase. It should be brought out, made very visible and used to learn lessons for the future.

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