Where they came from

From community-led curation to repatriating plunder, museums and galleries in the North are tackling the knotty subject of Britain’s imperial history

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In the Textiles Gallery of Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum are arrayed the water frames, power looms and other notable inventions that built Cottonopolis. They look intricate and intriguingly mechanical, marvellous in a world turned virtual and digital.

“We have been repatriating remains since 2003, when we returned six Australian aborigines.”

They look neutral, too, until your gaze falls on bales of raw material from the plantations of the American South. Go to Harewood House near Leeds to gawp at the architectural magnificence and opulent interior. It’s a great British pastime, contemplating how the other half a per cent lived. But the Lascelles family who still own Harewood House had interests in 47 sugar plantations and owned thousands of slaves across the West Indies. Trip along to Liverpool’s Albert Dock and you’ll find the imposing Maritime Museum, appropriately sited overlooking the wharves and boat graveyard. Embedded within, also aptly, is the International Slavery Museum.

From cotton to candy to country houses, empire is never far from British history or culture. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of slave-trading Tory MP Edward Colston – to name only the two most publicised news stories – many museums and galleries are reviewing their treasures and considering the knotty question of how to decolonise cultural assets.

In polarised Britain, it’s no surprise the process, though long overdue, is bogged down in political point-scoring. In September 2021, then culture secretary Oliver Dowden wrote to national museums and cultural bodies, stating that “the government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects… Rather than erasing these objects, we should seek to contextualise or reinterpret them in a way that enables the public to learn about them in their entirety, however challenging this may be.”

In response, the Museums Association (MA), which represents 1,800 museums, expressed its concern the secretary of state was suggesting “government funding may be withheld” if museums didn’t comply with his request to report measures taken by individual institutions. In November 2021 the organisation issued 40 pages of guidance carrying the title Supporting Decolonisation in Museums. In reaction, a right-wing, anti-“woke” faction of Tory MPs calling themselves the Common Sense Group wrote to Nadine Dorries, the newly appointed culture secretary, urging her to issue “refreshed guidance for all museums”.

Three months later Dorries had yet to comment. On 12 January, Newcastle’s Hancock museum became the first English collection to return a bronze stave to Benin “taken violently during the Punitive Expedition of 1897”. Aberdeen University was the first UK institution to do so, in October 2021.

Many museums are now reviewing their policies and holdings, including the Manchester Museum, which has a collection of 4.5 million archaeological, anthropological and natural history items built up over two centuries. In January 2021, the museum launched its Indigenising Manchester Museum programme and appointed its first curator of indigenous perspectives.

“The first decolonising step is to see the power structure and to understand how a collection came together,” says Georgina Young, the museum’s head
of exhibitions and collections.

“Who had the voice of authority? Our new curator is there to bring in indigenous voices across the entire collection.”

The textiles gallery at Manchester’s Science and Industry Museum. Main image: Shackles used to tether slaves at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum. Photos: Christopher Furlong/Shutterstock/Getty

All items have to be considered, she says, but some – such as human remains and sacred objects – demand special sensitivity.

“In the case of human remains, we have to consider whether we are looking at an object or an ancestor, and whether it is best displayed here or repatriated. We have been repatriating remains since 2003, when we returned the skeletal remains of six Australian aborigines.

“Museums are not known for being emotional or spiritual, but there’s no way to go about this without being those things. A rational, scientific, ‘objective’ frame is limiting. We are having to learn new approaches.”

Decolonising sometimes means re-framing objects that might not appear particularly “colonial”.

“We’re currently developing a Belonging gallery,” says Young. “We want to look at how the natural sciences and human culture are related, rather than keeping them separate in the traditional manner. So when we display an object, we talk to people for whom that object has significance. An example is a sculpted head with a bat headdress from Peru, which will be accompanied with a story about the significance of bats in Moche culture.

“In our South Asian Gallery, we have a team of 31 curators, many of them members of the diaspora, who can share their lived experiences with us.”

As the testbed of the Industrial Revolution, the North of England played a leading role in imperial commerce. The displays at Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills – once the world’s largest woollen mills – run the gamut from steam engines to spinning wheels to tailoring and fashion.

The museum cannot but celebrate the past glories of the so-called City of 1,000 Trades, but John McGoldrick, the museum’s curator of industrial history, doesn’t view decolonisation as a limiting factor.

“Our job is to present objects and information so that people can make their own mind up. It’s not about erasing history but about enhancing understanding of the positive and negative aspects of international trade.

“The emphasis right now, across many museums, might seem to be on the negative because that’s what’s been overlooked. It’s all right to praise Britain for leading the way in the Industrial Revolution, but we do have to look at the negative impacts of that.”

McGoldrick has been looking in particular at the Leeds firm of Robert Hudson, which sold light railways to Southern Africa during the 1920s.

“We need to show the economic impact of industrial development on people on the ground in places like Africa and India,” he says.

“Where once we might have been encouraged to see a huge order for rail and rolling stock as a ‘good news story’, we now have to consider labour conditions in the colony”.

A contemporary observer described workers on an Angolan project that involved Hudsons as “virtually state serfdom”.

“They sold rails and rolling stock to the Portuguese and French colonial powers and through Crown Agents into British colonies such as Sierra Leone,” says McGoldrick.

“These engineering firms were not providing suburban services for local people but the means to extract sugar cane, gold or diamonds, depending on the country.”

Liverpool’s built environment, from docks and office buildings to parks and mansions, is testimony to the wealth the city amassed in the 19th century. The port was a hub for trading connections with India, the Far East, Australia and South America, in addition to longstanding trade with North America and Africa.

Anne Fahy, head of World Museum, says you can trace these connections to local politics as well as the city’s cultural riches.

“Formerly slave trading families and firms played an outsized role in Liverpool’s municipal politics, even long after the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. Large-scale palm oil exports to Liverpool from West Africa were pioneered by firms that had profited from the West African trade in enslaved human beings.

“The wealth and influence of former slave trading families, like the Tobins, for example, gave them a strong presence in the city’s politics over more than one generation. A Tobin mayor is recorded as having made donations of animal and bird specimens from Africa to the World Museum collections in 1855.”

World Museum, which opened in 1853, is the oldest in the National Museums Liverpool group. William Brown, who provided the money for the building of the museum and library, was one of the main importers of slave-produced cotton into Liverpool in the first half of the 19th century. His family lived in America, running plantations, and the Browns owned many slaves in the Deep South.

“Because we are 160 years old, our collections are historic,” says Fahy. “Like many museums in the UK, World Museum’s collections reflect the British presence in the world. We are part of a much bigger national conversation about the representation and indeed ownership of material acquired by museums in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, especially collections amassed through military actions and the activities of servants of the British Empire.

“Many of the collections that date from this period were collected by people who worked in administrative, military and diplomatic roles within the empire, and some collections, such as economic botany, had a clear purpose in recording the economic resources within those countries and their potential for exploitation. We also acquired material from missionaries, who brought back examples of material culture to demonstrate their success in converting communities.

“Steam shipping was a tool of empire that was also central to the 19th century idea of ‘progress’ because it facilitated the spread of commerce, Christianity and ‘civilisation’. Steam shipping held disparate colonial territories together and served as an infrastructure for resource extraction and exploitation.

“Liverpool’s Elder Dempster ships, for example, regularly transported troops and military supplies to western Africa for conquest, or so-called punitive expeditions against African groups that tried to resist colonisation. The company also entrenched highly discriminatory labour practices by employing Africans at much lower rates than Europeans on their ships.

“Many artefacts entered the World Museum collections during the colonial era through a diverse range of collectors, but their collection and transportation was enabled by the infrastructure of steam shipping headquartered in Liverpool.”

For its forthcoming exhibition, Benin and Liverpool, the museum consulted members of Liverpool’s African diasporic communities, both in terms of what they felt was wrong with the existing display and what they expected from a renewed display.

“It was also important for this not to be purely a museum-led process,” says Fahy. “So we invited the artist Leo Asemota, who is from Benin and who now lives and works in the UK, to help facilitate a series of workshops with a small focus group from Liverpool’s African and African diaspora communities. The workshop discussions then formed the basis for the redisplay themes and messages.

“It was seen as essential to clearly expose the violent colonial history behind some of the objects from Benin City that we have in the collection. But one of the strong themes that came out through the workshop discussions was the feeling that we were not just dealing with matters from the past.

“The British conquest and looting of Benin in 1897 was a highly emotional topic for the workshop participants, because people of African descent have long been deprived of their cultural inheritance and voices by colonising nations and they still experience this today through contemporary forms of racial discrimination. So we found a way to include this present-day dimension into the display as well.”

The implications of decolonising are myriad. We have to reckon with the language of empire – expressions like “maritime prowess” or “the Empire on which the sun never set” – and the fact that the more impressive and comprehensive the museum or gallery collection, the more likely it is to have involved violence, theft and coercion.

Decolonising even changes the way we think about Northern industrial decline. In seeking to explain it, we usually point to offshoring, free markets, Thatcherism, London-centrism and privatisation. But part of the manufacturing pull-back in the region is due to the end of empire – which curbed the UK’s ability to impose its products and technologies on other countries.

No area of life, no region, no cultural asset is unaffected. For curators, decolonisation is a new way of thinking about their roles and cultural assets. For the rest of us it’s a potential identity crisis.

As Young puts it: “The simpler the story the longer it carries. We’re brought up being told about our great city and our great country. We’ve been told the big stories about ourselves for decades, for centuries, and it’s not easy for people to accept a more complicated story about the primacy of Britain.

“The more steps we are removed from the object itself – the cotton, say, gathered through slavery or indentured labour – the bigger the challenge it is to decolonise the story. You have to step back from the traditional idea that museums always know best. Sometimes they don’t. Many voices make up the truth.”

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