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Colston Hall provides update on rebrand after its controversial namesake becomes headline news

By | Published on Tuesday 9 June 2020

Colston Hall

Bristol’s Colston Hall yesterday provided an update on its big rebrand plans. The update was posted as the long-running controversy surrounding its current namesake became a global news story, thanks to the strategic, if impromptu, relocating of a contentious statue honouring the man, from a plinth on Colston Avenue to the bottom of Bristol Harbour.

Various streets and buildings in Bristol are named after Edward Colston, a divisive figure in the city’s history who lived from 1636 to 1721. Although during his lifetime Colston supported schools, hospitals and almshouses in Bristol, he made his fortune through the slave trade.

The commemoration of a slave-trader on Bristol’s streets has proven increasingly controversial in recent years. The 1895 statute of Colston was a particular controversy, with many calling for it to be removed, although there was plenty of opposition to that plan too.

As a compromise it was proposed that the plaque beneath the statue – that described Colston as “one of the most virtuous and wise sons” of Bristol – be accompanied by another notice explaining the controversies of his life story. Though a debate then ensued as to what that new notice should say, without resolution.

This weekend some of the people taking part in the Black Lives Matter protests in the city decided to end that debate once and for all, pulling the statute down and rolling it into the harbour. Footage of the statute’s demise has dominated the reporting of the latest round of UK protests that were staged in response to the death of George Floyd as he was being arrested in Minneapolis last month.

The destruction of the statue also yesterday dominated the political debate in the UK in relation to those protests. Some have asked why police didn’t intervene to stop the protestors. Others are debating what should now happen to those clearly captured on camera pulling the statue down. While others still have been asking why the statue hadn’t long been moved, possibly to a museum where Colston’s role in the slave trade could be properly explained and his philanthropic activities also acknowledged.

But back to Bristol music venue the Colston Hall, which – while having no official connection with Colston himself or any of the charities he supported during his lifetime – is nevertheless named in his honour.

The Bristol Music Trust that runs the venue had already announced plans three years ago for a big rebrand that would remove the Colston name from the building, on the basis that a major refurbishment of the venue complex provided a good opportunity to distance itself from the ongoing Colston controversy. Though that decision itself was somewhat controversial.

At the time the Trust’s CEO Louise Mitchell said that the refurb was a chance to dump the venue’s “toxic brand”. She added: “We really don’t feel an association with Edward Colston, however tenuous, is the way we want to [move] forward. I have members of staff whose families won’t come into the building because of the perceived connection with slavery. We can’t have that. For us this feels like the beginning of a new dawn. We are doing this now because it is the right thing to do”.

The original plan was for the venue to relaunch under a new name in spring this year, although the COVID-19 shutdown put that relaunch on hold. But with Colston now in the news in a major way, the venue issued a statement yesterday confirming that it will still launch its new brand this year, while adding that – in the meantime – it will remove all existing signage that bears the Colston name.

The statement read: “Following the Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol yesterday, Bristol Music Trust would like to reassert our commitment to changing the name of Colston Hall and give an update on the timescale for doing so”.

“We announced three years ago that we would be changing the name as part of the transformation of the Hall, which is currently closed whilst the redevelopment work is taking place. The Hall was built 150 years after Colston died and was not founded with any of his money. The current name does not reflect our values as a progressive, forward-thinking and open arts organisation – we want it to be representative of the city, a beacon of its values of hope, diversity and inclusion”.

“A new name was originally planned to be announced in spring 2020, following a thorough and in-depth consultation process carried out with over 4000 people from communities all across the city. However, COVID-19 has had an impact on the timing of our plans, preventing us from being able to carry out our final round of community engagement. The majority of our staff are now furloughed and our focus has temporarily switched to protecting the future of our organisation, as well as supporting our partners, Bristol’s music community, artists, music teachers and others”.

“We understand that the pace of change is important and we are working hard to adapt our plans through the pandemic. We aim to announce a new name that is right for both the Hall and the city in autumn 2020. There are a number of steps we need to take between now and then, but as a demonstration of our commitment, one of these will be removing the external signage from the building”.