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The Museum: Where the old statues went next

Museums show how nations can embrace their own murky, flawed histories.

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Statue of Edward Colston (Photo by Simon Cobb, Wikimedia Commons)

I'm eagerly anticipating spring 2023, when the new Colonial Tyranny Museum opens in Bristol Harbourside.

During the first two years there will also be a touring exhibition visiting other UK cities that are part of the fascinating, terrifying, humbling story of the years when some Britons went on a spree of conquering and enslaving, while others fought for equality and justice.

You will enter through the replica portico of an English public boarding school. You will line up to be shouted at and reprimanded for infringing pointless rules about which corridors you can walk along. Then you will begin to explore the museum. The story builds, darkens, and you will gawp helplessly at how cruel humans can be.

Then you will reach the climactic experience of the museum, the Burial at Sea installation. You will spiral down into a dimly-lit perspex tube and make a half-kilometre journey beneath the harbour, an unrelenting promenade of greening, barnacled old statues, lying unceremoniously on their bellies in the murky water.

Each statue depicts one of the notorious tyrants, slave traders, land grabbers and war generals who were once held up as bastions of the British Empire. Your walk through this watery grave is guided by CGI manifestations of reformers and campaigners down the ages - William Wilberforce, Emmeline Pankhurst, Shami Chakrabarti - who describe how progress was won.

You emerge into a beautiful Art Deco hall, for Fairtrade tea and coffee, curry and rice, and all but the coldest eyes shed a tear or two at how far we have come - and how vigilant we must be to avoid slipping backwards.

I'm lucky to have travelled. I've been to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk and the Vietnamese Women's Museum in Hanoi. I've left each of them with a catch in my throat and a tear in my eye. These are places where the triumph of good people over bad people, of hope over shame, are proudly and lovingly explained. These museums show how nations can embrace their own murky, flawed histories and shout from the rooftops, "The bad guys always lose in the end! Just keep on keeping on!" They show how instinctively people band together to overcome oppression.

Tearing down statues of slavers was a collective catharsis. The old tyrants are back in the news. It gave me a reason to explain slavery to my daughter. She was incredulous. But there's no shortage of people who'll say, "Slavery was wrong, but it's in the past. Ripping down statues just exposes liberals as an intolerant, revisionist mob." People on both sides of this argument come out feeling morally superior to the other. No minds have been changed.

But putting the statues together in a museum would be a big deal. Minds will change. Free entry, school trips, a decent café and an ironic souvenir shop that pokes fun at the exhibits - all will help burst the bubble of British exceptionalism. My ancestors might have been pillaging, racist imperialists. Yours might have been slaves or worked in hellish Victorian factories. Or vice versa. But we're both here, drinking tea and shedding a tear, and that makes us the same.

It's really time we stopped thinking of Britain as special, of our faded imperialism as a spent but benevolent force. Britain conquered the world, created winners and losers. We honoured some people and humiliated others. The trick now is not to paper over the stains on our country's history, but to frame them, point them out and explain them.

We need to tell the story, be proud and honest about how far we've come - and how far we still have to go.

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