History Matters Project: a compendium of evidence
This is the fourth edition of our rolling compendium, which attempts to draw together a range of recent developments that turn on the place of history in the public square – including the removal of certain statues on public display, the renaming of buildings and places, and changes to the way history is taught in educational curricula. In cataloguing these examples, we do not offer any judgment on the actions of the individual or institution in question, today or in the past. Our aim is simply to provide a clear documentary record of what is happening – which can help inform public debate on these issues. At present, the evidence confirms that history is the most active front in a new culture war, and that action is being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past.
Policy Exchange renews a call for evidence asking museum directors, curators, teachers and the wider public to share their experiences and concerns about the ways in which history is being politicised, and sometimes distorted, sending their evidence to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The History Matters project was mentioned during an adjournment debate in the House of Commons by Rt Hon Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State for School Standards: “Polling earlier this summer from Policy Exchange’s history project, chaired by the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, found that 69% of people rightly believed that UK history as a whole was something to be proud of, while only 17% thought it was something to be ashamed of. Similarly, large majorities were found to be in support of retaining statues of our great heroes, such as Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Nelson, as well as national memorials such as the Cenotaph. As the Prime Minister has said, we should not be embarrassed about our history, and we should celebrate and honour it. At the same time, we should celebrate the voices of those who may not have been heard as strongly in the past.”
1) HM Government Position on Contested Heritage
2) Sir John Cass Primary School
3) Sir Robert Geffrye – Museum of the Home
4) David Hume Tower, Edinburgh University
5) Scottish Programme for Government
6) Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
7) Museums Association
8) University of East Anglia
9) James Gillespie Primary School, Edinburgh
10) Dragon School, Oxford
11) Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
12) Exeter University
13) National Trust, Chartwell
14) Colston Hall, Bristol
15) Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm
16) City of London – Historic Landmarks Consultation
17) Wales Consultation
18) Melville Monument
19) Gladstone Park, Brent
20) Leeds Statue Review
21) Vandalised Statues
1. HM Government Position on Contested Heritage
Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has set out the Government’s position on contested heritage in a letter to Arm’s-length bodies (ALBs).
You will recall my earlier letter setting out Government policy regarding contested heritage and the removal of historical objects. I am grateful to those of you who have been in touch with me and my officials since. This clearly remains a live issue, so I wanted to take the opportunity to provide further support by way of restating the Government’s position and inviting you to engage with DCMS on what this means in the context of your organisation.
History is ridden with moral complexity. Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong. Some represent figures who have said or done things which we may find deeply offensive and would not defend today. But though we may now disagree with those who created them or who they represent, they play an important role in teaching us about our past, with all its faults.
It is for this reason that the Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects. Historic England, as the Government’s adviser on the historic environment, have said that removing difficult and contentious parts of it risks harming our understanding of our collective past. 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. Our aim should be to use them to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, both good and bad.
As set out in your Management Agreements, I would expect Arm’s Length Bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position. Further, as publicly funded bodies, you should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics. The significant support that you receive from the taxpayer is an acknowledgement of the important cultural role you play for the entire country. It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question. This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.
I recognise that this is a difficult subject, and one that can attract a great deal of intense feeling – from a variety of perspectives – among employees of your organisations, stakeholders and the public at large. We want to help. As such, I will shortly be inviting you to an online roundtable, which will provide an opportunity for an open discussion about the government position, the practical implications in your context, and how we can best collaborate going forward.
In the meantime, DCMS would like to develop a more complete understanding of the work you are undertaking, or considering, in this space. To that end, your Sponsors will be in touch with a short questionnaire designed to help inform our overview of this policy issue. This is in addition to the existing request that you continue to notify the department in advance of any actions or public statements in relation to contested heritage or histories.
Thank you once again for your engagement on this important matter; I look forward to hearing from you.
Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP
Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
2. Sir John Cass Primary School
Sir John Cass primary school announced on 1 September it would be now be called ‘The Aldgate School’. It has also issued a commitment to review the curriculum.
In a statement, the school said:
In June 2020, the Governing Board decided that the school should be renamed in light of Sir John Cass’s involvement in slavery, highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd. Our school is one in which every child is given full opportunity to flourish, irrespective of their background. Governors felt that to continue to celebrate our founder in the school’s name would be incompatible with our vision and values. Our trustee, the Sir John Cass’s Foundation, made a similar decision at the time, as did the other institutions that shared their name. Governors further proposed that the new school name should be one which is geographical rather than biographical, should retain a sense of the long history of the school and its links to the Sir John Cass’s Foundation and the Church of England, and should celebrate its unique position as the only state-maintained school in the City of London.
There followed a four-week consultation period with our stakeholders. Governors would like to thank pupils, former pupils, staff, parents, the Sir John Cass’s Foundation, the Parochial Church Council (PCC) of St Botolph’s Aldgate, the City Deanery Synod, and the London Diocesan Board for Schools (LDBS) for their involvement in that process. Over 100 people attended virtual consultation meetings and a similar number of written representations were received. Governors reviewed every comment and these informed their final choice of name.
History of Aldgate
Aldgate takes its name from one of the seven gates in the former London Wall, the site of which lies directly outside the school grounds and which dates back to Roman times. The gate gave its name to the twelfth century priory, Christchurch Aldgate, the remains of which lie below the school playground. Aldgate is also one of the 25 ancient wards of the City of London. Due to its location at the entrance to the City, Aldgate has long been a place of great welcome and diversity, both ethnically and culturally. It has also been an area of great change, an aspect that continues to this day. Aldgate is currently undergoing significant redevelopment and a large public space, Aldgate Square, has recently opened alongside the school building. Governors believe that the choice of name conveys a sense of this diverse history while placing the school at the heart of the thriving and fast-changing Aldgate community.
A key message arising from the consultation was the importance of the school’s links to three historic institutions: the Sir John Cass’s Foundation, the Church of England, and the City of London. The school derives huge benefit from each of these institutions, financially, culturally, and in terms of the education it delivers. These relationships make the school the special and unique place everyone recognises it to be. Many views were expressed during the consultation period and governors decided that the most appropriate way to address all three institutions was in the strapline to the school’s name. This will be used on signs, on letterheads, and on the school website. The wording of the strapline will be decided once the Sir John Cass’s Foundation has completed its own renaming process.
Committed to diversity
The Governing Board would also like to thank the members of the Working Group it established in June to consider the school’s response to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. In addition to the renaming of the school and the removal of all statues relating to Sir John Cass, the Working Group made further recommendations that have been approved by the Board. The way in which the curriculum is delivered in school will be reviewed, helping children gain a greater understanding of all histories. This will build on existing work in this area to ensure that children are aware of the potential bias of Eurocentric interpretations. In addition, the school will ensure that the transition to a new name is recorded in an appropriate manner and that its long history will continue to be celebrated, allowing all members of the community to retain their rightfully held sense of pride in the institution. This includes replacing Founder’s Day with a new, more appropriate ceremony held at St Botolph’s Aldgate.
Finally, in addition to the above measures, the Governing Board will further its attempts to increase the diversity of its members. As part of the renaming process, governors have requested an amendment to the Instrument of Government of the school, strengthening its commitment to the principles of diversity and inclusivity. When ratified by the City of London Corporation, the new Instrument of Government will make explicit reference to the school’s Diversity Statement. This will be reviewed by the Governing Board in the Autumn Term and regularly thereafter. These measures have the approval of the Foundation and the LDBS and will be used to guide governor appointments by all relevant bodies. The lack of diversity of governing boards is a national problem. We are committed to removing barriers that may have discouraged members of certain parts of our society from considering applying to become a school governor, and to ensuring a diverse board that better reflects our school community.
3. Sir Robert Geffrye – Museum of the Home
Following a process of reflection, debate and research, and a consultation conducted in partnership with Hackney Council, the Board of Trustees of the Museum of the Home has taken the decision over summer not to remove the statue from the Museum’s buildings.
In a statement, the Board of Trustees said:
“The Board believes that the Museum should reinterpret and contextualise the statue where it is, to create a powerful platform for debate about the connection between the buildings and transatlantic slavery. The Museum has a responsibility to reflect and debate history accurately, and in doing so to confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the Museum buildings.
As the Museum of the Home – a place to reveal and rethink the ways we live in order to live better together – we will also be addressing, in our galleries and programming, the connections between the British home and exploitative trade, value systems and physical objects, both historically and today.
Many people took time to share their views in the public consultation. Overall, the response was in favour of removing the statue. However, feedback showed that what to do with the statue is a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions. On balance the Board has taken the view that the important issues raised should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change, along with better interpretation and conversation around the statue.
We acknowledge the pain caused by the connections between the Museum buildings and the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans. The Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated a profound need for people and institutions to educate themselves about the legacy of structural racism and colonialism. We are committed to reflecting this at the Museum when we reopen as a place to explore the many meanings of home.”
Historic England said “Our general advice on “contested heritage” is set out on our website. It is a complex and difficult area and we do appreciate and understand the calls to remove. However we have given this a great deal of thought, and advocate retention and reinterpretation rather than removal. There is a risk that after removal the whole story would disappear from view. Our view is advisory to the local planning authority in the case of a listed or protected statue. The decision is for them in the light of their assessment of our advice and of public benefit as a whole. We welcome open discussions.”
Diane Abbott has reacted to the decision to keep the statue:
4. David Hume Tower – University of Edinburgh
The University of Edinburgh has announced on 15 September 2020 that the David Hume Tower would be renamed 40 George Square “because of the sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after the 18th century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.”
In a statement, the University of Edinburgh said:
“It is important that campuses, curricula and communities reflect both the University’s contemporary and historical diversity and engage with its institutional legacy across the world. For this reason the University has taken the decision to re-name – initially temporarily until a full review is completed – one of the buildings in the Central Area campus.
From the start of the new academic year the David Hume Tower will be known as 40 George Square.
The interim decision has been taken because of the sensitivities around asking students to use a building named after the 18th century philosopher whose comments on matters of race, though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.
This is ahead of the more detailed review of the University’s links to the past in the context of meaningful action and repair; this work is ongoing and is considering many other issues beyond the naming of buildings. It is a substantial exercise of research, engagement and reflection, upon which we will be able to adopt refreshed and appropriate policies on a range of issues such as the future naming of buildings as well as how we should commemorate our history more generally. The city of Edinburgh is also undertaking a similar review and the University is in discussions with the civic leaders about subjects which affect us both.”
5. Scottish Programme for Government
Scotland’s Programme for Government 2020-2021 has announced on 1 September that the government will sponsor an independent expert group to recommend how the country’s “existing and future museum collections can better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of Scotland’s colonial and slavery history”.
”COVID-19 has not been the only global issue to bring greater attention to issues of racial inequality. The growing Black Lives Matter movement has shone a powerful spotlight on continuing racial injustice and race‑based violence, and the need for countries to face their colonial history. Scotland, too, needs to address its history. Partnering with Museums Galleries Scotland, in collaboration with race equality and museums sector stakeholders, we will sponsor an independent expert group to make recommendations on how Scotland’s existing and future museum collections we can better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of Scotland’s colonial and slavery history and what further steps should be taken to ensure people in Scotland are aware of the role Scotland played and how that manifests itself in our society today. This will include how to reflect, interpret and celebrate the wide‑ranging and positive contributions that ethnic minority communities have made and continue to make to Scotland.
Workplaces must share the diversity of the communities they serve and set a positive leadership example. With the John Smith Centre, we will establish a Minority Ethnic Leadership and Development Programme, a 9 month professional and personal development programme for 50 black and minority ethnic people from across Scotland. The Minority Ethnic Emerging Leaders Academy will support development of leadership, including internships and a dedicated mentor to support awardees throughout the programme and beyond. Backed by £470,000, this will support the Scottish Government ambition to remove barriers to leadership and increase diversity and representation from minority ethnic communities in public life.
In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and one of the recommendations made by Scottish Government’s COVID-19 Ethnicity Expert Group, we will engage with relevant stakeholders to better enable our children and young people to learn about Scotland’s colonial and slavery history and the real need today to challenge racism, eliminate racial discrimination and advance equality. We will ensure that the diversity of our society is recognised and represented in the education workforce at all levels in line with the ambitions of the Race Equality Framework. As part of this work we will address the under representation of Minority Ethnic teachers in Scotland by exploring alternative pathways into teaching for Minority Ethnic and other underrepresented groups.
We will also continue to work with the Scottish Funding Council as it takes forward the recommendations of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into racial harassment in British Universities published in 2019.”
6. Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts
Students at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art have said George Bernard Shaw’s name should be removed from its theatre over his support of eugenics. The call is included in an anti-racism action plan that also says received pronunciation should be “de-centred” from the curriculum. The plan says the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art should also consider dropping the performance of Restoration comedies due to their association with empire. “Master and servant” exercises should no longer be included in improvisation classes because they are racially insensitive, while singing lessons should be overhauled because the composers studied “are almost entirely white men”.
In a statement published on 21 August, RADA said: “Thank you all for your patience regarding progress on our work to establish an anti-racist culture and institution. The students created an incredibly detailed action plan for us to follow, and we have been working tirelessly behind the scenes since early July to honour that document.”
Extracts from the Anti-Racism Action Plan:
“Removal of all material created by and/or honouring those who supported racist
ideologies. Including (but not limited to): busts, paintings, room names, theatre
spaces, and seats.
- Action 1: Renaming of the basement theatre space currently known as the George Bernard Shaw (GBS) Theatre. This man spoke in support of eugenics and fascism.
- Action 2: RADA must review every name recognised and celebrated in its buildings by thoroughly researching the individuals’ backgrounds, affiliations and public beliefs.
- Action 3: A more diverse group of influential figures must be honoured by including their portraits, paintings or busts in the buildings, and in renaming spaces and theatre seats.”
12.5.1 Some BAME students feel as if they have lost the authenticity of the voices they
had before they began studying at RADA.
12.5.2 RP is often mandatory when playing characters who are royal.
12.5.3 RP is given precedence over all other speech systems in the training, particularly in
12.5.4 Every member of RADA’s voice department is white, and most voice tutors’ default
speech system is RP.
12.5.1 Ensure that the speech systems of students of all backgrounds are valued
throughout the training.
- Action: Proactively recruit voice staff with a diverse range of speech systems: representation is key.
to class/race-based assumptions and stereotypes.
- Action: Actively encourage students to use their own speech systems, particularly when playing certain characters (i.e. royalty).
- Action: Review whether RP should be the first speech system learnt in first year, and whether the current amount of time spent on RP across the course is necessary.”
“12.6.3 Students should learn history from an anti-racist perspective.
- Action 1: Staff to be educated on a decolonised perspective of the historical periods students study in dance.
- Action 2: Staff to deliver historical context from a decolonial perspective, inclusive of a global context.”
7. Museums Association
The Museums Association has said it unreservedly supports “initiatives to decolonise museums and their collections”. The Museums Association describes itself as a “dynamic membership organisation that campaigns for socially engaged museums and a representative workforce”.
In a statement, the MA said:
“Decolonisation is not simply the relocation of a statue or an object; it is a long-term process that seeks to recognise the integral role of empire in British museums – from their creation to the present day. Decolonisation requires a reappraisal of our institutions and their history and an effort to address colonial structures and approaches to all areas of museum work.
This work has already started. Over the past decades museums have begun to recognise the trauma and suffering caused by the display and representation of objects that were obtained during or made as a result of the British Empire.
Many museum people have worked with consultants and volunteers in the UK and internationally to re-examine collections and explore the different stories they can tell. This vital work allows museums to provide additional information and context to the items they hold; to enter into meaningful dialogue with source communities and those in the diaspora relevant to these collections; and, in some cases, to explore options for restitution. Museums have also recognised the need for structural change, through a more diverse workforce and leadership. While some progress has been made on this front, there is still much to do.
We consider decolonising work to be ethically the right thing to do. Last year we established a Decolonisation Guidance Working Group at the request of our Ethics Committee. This was in response to recommendations in our Empowering Collections report. The publication recommended that: “Sector support organisations, the MA Ethics Committee and museums should work together to establish new guidance for the sector and ensure that museums take a proactive approach in the reinterpretation and decolonising of collections.”
We recognise the lack of support and guidance for museums undertaking work to decolonise their collections and practice and seek to bridge the current gap between theory and practice in this area.
We will continue this work and we will carry on supporting those that are striving to create an open and honest appraisal of the origin and meaning of our collections and buildings.”
The Museums Association has also called for “museums, funders and policy-makers to work together to ensure that museum collections are empowering, relevant and dynamic”.
In doing so, they have recommended the following:
- A culture change in collections practice
- A proactive approach to the democratisation and decolonisation of collections
- A focus on reinterpretation of out-of-date displays
- Research to understand public expectations of collections
- Strategic collecting in partnership with communities
- A strategic approach to online collections
- Use collections projects to create social impact, embed knowledge and build legacy
- Support partnerships and knowledge sharing
- Improve training and funding for the rationalisation of museum collections
- Improve transparency and accessibility of Museum Collections online
- Explore shared storage solutions
8. University of East Anglia
The University of East Anglia is seeking to decolonise the curriculum. In an internal email to staff in the School of History, the Teaching Director said:
The HUM faculty working group has approved a draft statement on decolonising the curriculum which is suitable for inclusion, at module-level, in your module booklets. We are circulating the statement with the intention of supporting and assisting colleagues by providing a ready-made form of words:
“As a School we are committed to offering an inclusive learning environment to all students. We believe in the importance of teaching which includes a plurality of worldviews and ways of knowing and, to this end, we are seeking to decolonise our curriculum by engaging with leading research and pedagogical perspectives that reflect the diversity and plurality of all our disciplines.”
You may wish to add a second paragraph, explaining what steps you have taken or are taking in the relevant module –
“In this module…” etc. The steps might include diversifying the reading material, topics and themes covered, adopting new pedagogical approaches, drawing attention to the exclusion of minority perspectives in traditional historical narratives and debate, finding ways to restore or include marginalised viewpoints, reflecting on our own assumptions, etc.
Chris Sandal-Wilson is our decolonising lead in HIS. He would be glad to offer further advice if needed. The HIS anti-racism reading group is meanwhile working on a School-level statement of our commitment to decolonising the curriculum.
With all good wishes,
Policy Exchange Call for Evidence
9. James Gillespie Primary School, Edinburgh
A petition has been launched to rename one of Scotland’s best-performing state schools.
“As protests against racism have erupted acorss the world in the past few weeks, it is time that we reflect on the history of our school and consider the changes that we can make in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
For those who don’t know, James Gillespie became one of the richest men in Edinburgh by selling Virginia tobacco and snuff – products of slave labour. This makes him a direct contributor and benefactor of the slave trade. It is possible that Gillespie may have owned slaves himself.
It’s time that we change the name of our school to something that truly “values the diversity that exists” within our school. This is not an attempt to cover up our history, rather a way of saying that we don’t believe that this man is someone who should be celebrated anymore. Education on our school’s history should part of our curriculum, but a man who made his wealth at the expense of others’ lives is not something we should be proud of. Our main building is named after Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai – an activist and truly inspiring woman, who’s defiance and bravery represent our school values far better than Gillespie.
A primary school in Bristol which was named after Edward Colson, who transported over 80,000 slaves across the atlantic, changed it’s name last year, and it was his statue that was taken down in Bristol at the weekend. As our society changes, our perspective on history does too, and we should all be taking an active part in standing against racism. These small things will become a catalyst for permanent change in Scotland and beyond.”
The School said on its website:
“James Gillespie (1726 – 1797) was an Edinburgh snuff and tobacco merchant. We acknowledge the connections to the North Virginia slave-owning tobacco plantations which this trade had. We teach children about chattel slavery and about modern slavery. We also teach children about Black History. We are currently updating our curriculum to take more account of this history and of the Black Lives Matter movement. It is important children understand the role our country and other countries played in slavery. Our school vision, values and aims mean that children learn about human rights and the importance of treating everyone with respect. We do not tolerate racism and have clear procedures for dealing with racism where it occurs.
10. Dragon School, Oxford
The Dragon School in Oxford has decided to rename a senior boys’ boarding house over fears of racist connotations.
“Dragon House – the new name for Gunga Din
From the start of the Autumn term, Gunga Din is being renamed Dragon House. As the name is over 80 years old, below is a brief summary of the story behind the original name and why we are now changing the name to Dragon House.
The name ‘Gunga Din’ for the senior boys’ boarding house was originally chosen by the Headmaster ‘Hum’ Lynam, who was Head of the Dragon from 1920 to 1942. The name comes from the eponymous poem by Rudyard Kipling, narrated by an English soldier.
Kipling’s poem tells the story of Gunga Din, an Indian ‘bhishti’ or water-carrier in the service of the English military. He is often insulted, maligned and mistreated by the soldiers, yet remains faithful to them, even on the battlefield, tending to the wounded and delivering water to soldiers under fire. The poem ends with Gunga Din being hit by a bullet while attempting to save the English soldier, who is the narrator of the poem. Reflecting on this moment, and his past behaviour, Gunga Din’s death leads the English soldier to have a fundamental change of opinion, saying in the concluding line of the poem “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”
Kipling’s Gunga Din, written in 1890 and set in British India, is intentionally an uncomfortable poem to read, describing the mistreatment of Indians by English soldiers who use both derogatory language and physical brutality in the poem. In the last line, the words of the narrator express a realisation of the extraordinary decency and remarkable heroism of Gunga Din, and by direct comparison, a recognition of the English soldier’s own shortcomings.
It is understood that Hum chose Gunga Din as the name given to the boys’ boarding house to highlight the higher ideals of equality, fairness and human dignity; these align with today’s core Dragon values of Kindness, Courage and Respect. Sadly the term ‘Gunga’ has now become derogatory, and even used as a racial slur. Such potentially offensive language is of course against the Dragon’s ethos of inclusivity and diversity. Kipling’s poem was of its time and the Governors and Headmaster recognise that it is no longer appropriate to continue using the name Gunga Din.
In seeking a new name for Gunga Din, we have looked to the history of our school and its name. Taking over from his brother Skipper, on Hum’s succession to headship in 1920, Hum decreed that as the boys had always been known as ‘Dragons’, the Oxford Preparatory School should now be known as Dragon School. This year, 2020, therefore marks the centenary of the introduction of the name Dragon School. In recognition of Hum’s important legacy with regard to the school’s name, from September 2020, the start of the new academic year, Gunga Din will now be known as ‘Dragon House’. This name is particularly appropriate given the boarding house’s location beside Dragon Lane and it takes its place alongside the names ‘School House’ and ‘Cherwell House’, our other senior houses.”
Policy Exchange Call for Evidence
Alexander Pelling-Bruce, The Spectator: The Dragon school’s bizarre decision to ban Gunga Din
11. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has made “critical changes to displays as part of the decolonisation process”.
In a statement, the museum said:
“When we reopen our doors to the public on 22 September 2020, visitors will see changes to some of the Museum’s more contentious displays. These changes are part of a comprehensive programme of work we are doing to deeply engage with the Museum’s colonial legacy. Overall, this is one of the most pioneering approaches to decolonisation at a museum in the UK.
However, the history of the Museum and many of its objects is closely tied to British Imperial expansion and the colonial mandate to collect and classify objects from the world over. The processes of colonial collecting were often violent and inequitable towards those peoples being colonised. This difficult history has led the Museum to engage more closely with its past practices and the nature of its collections, display and interpretation and the effects these continue to have today. While such questions are being posed in museums across the sector, the nature of Pitt Rivers’ history, collections and displays (its historic labels including racist and derogatory language, commonly used at the time) makes these questions particularly pressing and especially challenging.
How does a large historic museum, with such a legacy of colonialism, begin to address these issues? We have approached this holistically and strategically. Over three years, from 2017-2020, its director, Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, has led a comprehensive and pioneering Internal Review of Displays and Programming from an Ethical Perspective involving both internal staff and external stakeholders, in particular community delegates from different parts of the world but also A-level students and people living in Oxfordshire as refugees or forced migrants.
This review has provided a framework for considering these issues and informed a plan for decolonisation, a process described by the Museums Association as “not simply the relocation of a statue or an object but a long-term process that seeks to recognise the integral role of empire in British museums – from their creation to the present day – that requires a reappraisal of our institutions and their history and an effort to address colonial structures and approaches to all areas of museum work.” We have broadened this approach to include work that embraces hope, reconciliation and redress and focuses on co-curatorial approaches to bring new voices into the Museum and ensure public engagement is led by socially engaged work with communities.
Our review identified and prioritised displays that required urgent attention because of the derogatory language used in the historic case labels or because they reinforced stereotypical thinking about cultures across the globe that, as part of the colonial project, were seen as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’. Some cases were chosen for review as they include looted objects, or featured human remains. Others included objects considered sacred or secret by Indigenous Peoples, such as the Shuar tsantsa (shrunken heads).
A key outcome of the review was the removal of well-known human remains that have often been on display for many years. Over the summer of 2020, a team at the Museum carefully removed 120 human remains from open display, including the well-known South American tsanta (shrunken heads), Naga trophy heads from NE India and the mummy of an Egyptian child. All items have now been moved into storage. The Museum still cares for over 2800 human remains from different parts of the world, and is actively reaching out to descendant communities to find the most appropriate way to care for these complex items.
Laura Van Broekhoven says: “Our audience research has shown that visitors often saw the Museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome’. Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other’s ways of being, the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the Museum’s values today. The removal of the human remains also brings us in line with sector guidelines and code of ethics.”
Research Associate Marenka Thompson-Odlum, who curated several of the new displays says: “A lot of people might think about the removal of certain objects or the idea of restitution as a loss, but what we are trying to show is that we aren’t losing anything but creating space for more expansive stories. That is at the heart of decolonisation. We are allowing new avenues of story-telling and ways of being to be highlighted.”
Where the human remains were displayed, in a case called ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’, visitors will now find information on the Museum’s human remain collections, our work towards restitution of the remains and an explanation of why the objects were taken off display including how they formed part of problematic past academic practices of physical anthropology and race science, and how those are linked to racist ideas about superiority and inferiority
The Museum is committed to continuing this critical work informed by its review. As part of its stewardship of human remains, it is working with communities on restitution issues – a process that often involves collaborative engagement over a long period and may lead to remains being returned, cared for differently, or redisplayed. It is also engaging in proactive work regarding the composition of its collections, including objects taken through military violence or otherwise under duress. In 2019 the Museum was shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year, praised for ‘its curatorial energy and innovative programming inviting new responses that spark curiosity’ and calling its ‘bold approach to addressing the contentious histories of its collections sector-leading.’
Our commitment to this work is supported within Oxford University where the Museum sits as a department. The Museum has worked closely with the University on its current Procedures for Claims for the Return of Cultural Objects from Oxford University Museums and Libraries, published in July 2020.
Laura Van Broekhoven: “There will be those who will miss being intrigued by the tsantsa, but we also know that most of our visitors have several favourite objects. With over 50,000 objects on display, we know our visitors will continue to find things that bring joy, inspire creativity and curiosity as there is no museum better suited to wander and wonder than the Pitt Rivers Museum.“
The Museum also said:
“The Museum’s rootedness in coloniality comes to us in materialized form through its unique Victorian galleries, the often-problematic language of its historic labels, and the very presence of its collections. Collections like the one we steward, were largely gathered during the time of the British Empire. During this period, systems and structures used for the exploitation of resources and people, including enslavement, were set up in institutionalised form in order to accumulate wealth and power for the colonisers. Part of that system of disempowerment of local authority was through the taking of (often sacred) objects. The people who took these objects felt entitled to do so; to appropriate them in order to represent cultural practices, and to speak about and for others from eurocentric perspectives. This process of taking and categorising cultural practice was often highly problematic, as there was no acknowledgement of the views of the originating communities and no reflection on the methods used to dispossess communities of these objects.
A visit to the Museum, therefore, evokes very different emotions and feeling with different people, depending on background and walks of life. For those who have heritage or roots in regions of the world that suffered the violence of Empire, the Pitt Rivers Museum can be a very difficult and hurtful place to be, as it can be for people who have to confront ableist and heter-normative world views on a daily basis. Too often stories have been silenced, perspectives erased. Undoing this coloniality is integral to the work the Museum does today.
In October 2015 the student-led protest movement Rhodes Must Fall tweeted “The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most violent spaces in Oxford”. As Brian Kwoba explained in The Cherwell newspaper, “it houses thousands of artefacts stolen from colonised peoples throughout the world”. We are fully aware and acknowledge that the Museum, while much loved by many across the globe, should be (and has been) scrutinised, especially by ourselves. Lothar Baumgarten critiqued the Museum for being “the Preserve of Colonialism”; Christian Kravagna has called it “the manifestation of the denial of coevalness”; in 2017 Holly Hemming analysed how the language in our labels is often passive in tone, reductionist and in some cases, apologist and romanticises colonisation by using words that sound innocent and should be recognised as such. In June 2020 author Sunny Singh tweeted how seeing the Pitt Rivers made her think she might be having a ‘Killmonger’ fantasy and that it makes her skin crawl.”
Pitt Rivers Museum
12. Exeter University
The University of Exeter’s history department has released a statement explaining what the internal decolonisation process would involve.
“As a department, we are working to decolonise the way we teach, research, and work with one another.
We also recognise that the modern academic discipline of History emerged in Europe during a period of increased nationalism and colonial exploitation, and that many of the fundamental structures of knowledge upon which it is built are influenced by a colonialist world-view: one that privileges the ideas, rights, and dignity of some groups of people above others. This includes the question of whose stories we choose to tell, but it also goes deeper. The very ways we are conditioned to look at and think about the past are often derived from imperialist and racialised schools of thought.
We recognise that History – and the legacies of its colonial foundations – constitutes one of the ways in which some groups of people have been, and continue to be, oppressed, ignored, or abused in our societies today. In solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other decolonial and postcolonial movements around the world, we also recognise that History can be an important tool for positive social change.
We acknowledge that much writing and teaching in History departments today, even when purporting to have a ‘global’ focus, remains Eurocentric and thus skewed in its coverage, perspectives, and sympathies. Meanwhile, work focusing on Europe often ignores or downplays the importance of non-white actors in our shared past. We also recognise and abhor that racial prejudice continues to mar our discipline, from the under-representation of BME scholars on our reading lists and in our faculties to the day-to-day experiences of our colleagues. We recognise that the way we ‘do’ History, at Exeter as elsewhere, needs to change if we are to remain relevant, and help to address chronic and systemic injustices, in our increasingly connected and interdependent global society.
We are at the same time committed to a pluralist understanding of decolonising our curriculum and our research. Since the work of decolonising is not based on any particular political or ideological agenda, we recognise that there is no single way to accomplish it. Our approach rests upon the free and open exchange of ideas and perspectives in a common pursuit of understanding the past. This includes working with our students as co-producers of knowledge to create a collaborative and inclusive educational experience. At Exeter, ‘decolonising’ is about expanding, not narrowing, what we do as a history department.
We believe these changes need to go beyond simply diversifying our reading lists and footnotes. As a group, we are working to re-think our pedagogical and research methodologies to more fully avail ourselves of the tools developed by postcolonial, anticolonial, and decolonial scholarship, thus enabling a stronger and broader appreciation of the complexities of past societies and cultures.
This broad understanding is therefore important even in historical contexts where colonisation in its modern form did not exist. Indeed, crucial to our work is an examination of the non-western world on its own terms, including before the arrival of European explorers and imperialists. Similarly, the study of the world before the fifteenth century also requires placing western Europe in its proper perspective relative to contemporary ‘Great Powers’, such as the eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire or the Abbasid caliphate. This transnational approach to the medieval and early modern worlds also illuminates connexions of conquest, trade, and culture across the Mediterranean, the Eurasian steppes and ‘Silk Roads’, and the Sahara. Finally, decolonising reminds us of the fundamental work of historians of all geographical and chronological specialisms to uncover and re-present voices marginalised in our sources and subsequent historiography, for instance those of women, members of black and minority ethnic groups, peasants, and the urban poor.”
13. National Trust, Chartwell
The National Trust has included Winston Churchill’s family home in a report compiling sites linked to “colonialism and slavery”
“Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965), whose family home is Chartwell (NT), served as Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921 to 1922. He was Prime Minister during the devastating Bengal Famine of 1943, the British response to which has been heavily criticised. Churchill opposed the Government of India Act in 1935, which granted India a degree of self-governance. On 1 July 1947, he wrote to Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1883–1967), arguing that India should not gain independence. The passing of the Indian Independence Act on 18 July 1947 saw the partition of British India and the creation of the independent nations of India and Pakistan. Three hundred years of colonial rule ended.”
“Chartwell was the family home of Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965) from 1922 until his death. One of the longest-serving political figures in British history, he was Prime Minister twice (1940– 5 and 1951–5), famously during the Second World War – a period that coincided with the Bengal Famine of 1943. Leading historians, such as Robert Rhodes James, comment that Churchill lived an ‘exceptionally long, complex, and controversial life’. He served as Secretary of State for the Colonies (1921–2) and helped to draft the Anglo-Irish Treaty at the time of the creation of the Irish Free State. However, Churchill opposed the granting of Dominion status to India, voting against the India Bill in 1935.”
14. Colston Hall, Bristol
Colston hall in Bristol has announced it would now be called ‘Bristol Beacon’.
In a statement, Colston Hall said:
“We know that our former name, that of the slave trader Edward Colston, meant that not everyone has felt welcome or that they belong in their city’s concert hall. And if we can’t share the joy of live music with everyone, something must change.
Our organisation was founded long after Colston’s death, and has no direct connection to him, financial or otherwise. We can no longer be a monument to someone who played such a prominent role in the slave trade.
This is an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to play our part in creating a fairer and more equal society.
We believe in the power of music to break down barriers and cross boundaries. Bristol Beacon will celebrate this in everything we do.
And with this new beginning, we can do more: providing opportunities to create and experience incredible music moments like never before.
The light of a beacon brings hope and renewal. We believe that music does this too. You’ve told us that you want us to inspire more people through music. With this change, and the coming transformation of our building, we can do that together. Today marks the start of a new chapter as Bristol Beacon.
We are announcing our new name without a new logo. We need to build our future identity in partnership with the communities of Bristol. So, we are working with young emerging creatives from Rising Arts Agency to help us develop an identity that is right for our new name and for Bristol, now and in the future.”
15. Mayor of London – Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm
The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has shared the details of an open call for “Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm” members. (11 September 2020).
The Commission’s draft terms of reference include:
- Making recommendations on the commissioning of statues, memorials, blue plaques, commemorations, murals, street art, works on public hoardings, street names, pavements, and street furniture.
- Providing an overview of existing public art and the public realm in London.
- Creating best practice on commissioning works and how to assess, evaluate and approach contested heritage, including making recommendations for the addition of context to existing works, or their removal.
16. City of London – Historic Landmarks Consultation
The City of London Corporation has announced a consultation to review historic landmarks in the City of London. The consultation opened on 18 August and will end on 24 November 2020.
In a statement, the corporation said:
“Like many areas of the country, the City of London has a number of statues and other landmarks which have links to the slave trade and historic racism.
In the light of the Black Lives Matter movement, organisations across the UK are reviewing the cultural legacy of slavery and deciding how this issue should be addressed.
The City of London Corporation is committed to equality, inclusivity and diversity, and to ensuring the City, and City Corporation sites managed outside the Square Mile, are places where people of all ethnicities and backgrounds feel safe and welcome.
In June 2020, the City Corporation set up the Tackling Racism Taskforce to consider what the organisation should do to tackle racism in all its forms.
What we’re asking you to comment on
We’re asking stakeholders including City residents, workers, students and visitors and the general public for their views on:
- Whether you think statues, building and street names and other landmarks with links to slavery, and historic racism in the City of London – or on City Corporation sites managed outside the Square Mile – are a problem
- Which statues and other landmarks in particular you think are a problem
- What action you would like to see taken – for example leaving statues and landmarks in situ, reinterpreting them visually in some way, or moving them
We’re also asking other stakeholders including City cultural and business institutions and political and other London and national bodies for their views and will be in dialogue with the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm.
What happens next
Your views, along with those of City cultural institutions and political and other bodies across London, will be taken into account when the Tackling Racism Taskforce makes recommendations to the City Corporation’s Policy and Resources Committee for a final decision.”
City of London
17. Wales Consultation
Carmarthen County Council in Wales has announced a consultation to review historic landmarks. This consultation is open since 21 August and will last until 30 September 2020.
In a statement, the council said:
“We are aware of public comment and discussion about monuments and memorials across Wales and in the county, and in particular the monument to Sir Thomas Picton in Carmarthen town. We are seeking your comments, so that we as a Council can reflect on people’s views and decide how best to recognise and commemorate the contribution made by historical figures.”
18. Melville Monument
A plaque providing “a more representative story” of Henry Dundas will be erected at the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square, Edinburgh.
Edinburgh Council announced in June that the new plaque would read:
“On the plinth at the centre of St Andrew Square stands a neoclassical column with a statue at the top. This represents Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742 – 1811). He was the Scottish Lord Advocate and an MP for Edinburgh and Midlothian, and the First Lord of the Admiralty. Dundas was a contentious figure, provoking controversies that resonate to this day. While Home Secretary in 1792 and first Secretary of State for War in 1796 he was instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Slave trading by British ships was not abolished until 1807. As a result of this delay, more than half a million enslaved Africans crossed the Atlantic. Dundas also curbed democratic dissent in Scotland.
“Dundas both defended and expanded the British empire, imposing colonial rule on indigenous peoples. He was impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money and although acquitted, he never held public office again. Despite this, the monument before you to Henry Dundas was funded by voluntary contribution from officers, petty officers, seamen and marines and erected in 1821, with the statue placed on top in 1827.
“In 2020 this was dedicated to the memory of the more than half a million Africans whose enslavement was a consequence of Henry Dundas’s actions.”
Council Leader Adam McVey said:
It’s right that a more accurate description has been agreed for the plaque at the statue of Henry Dundas. It’s important that a more appropriate and factual description is in place so that people who visit the area can read about the monument and get an appreciation of Edinburgh’s history, and particularly the City’s role in the slave trade.
This is of course just one part of Edinburgh’s history and one small change that we’ve been able to make – we should take many more actions to tackle prejudice now and that includes looking at how we tell our history as it was, not as we wished it had been.
Depute Leader Cammy Day added:
At our meeting earlier today we universally agreed that is no place for racism, prejudice, discrimination, intolerance and hate in Edinburgh and that we will continue to nurture and enhance the Capital’s globally renowned reputation as a safe, welcoming, inclusive city for anyone, from anywhere, to live, work, study, and visit.
This plaque describing Henry Dundas in a more accurate context is an important, if overdue, step in confronting our often uncomfortable history. I hope we continue to take more.”
City of Edinburgh
19. Gladstone Park – Brent
A park in Brent named after former Prime Minister William Gladstone could be renamed. Gladstone, who served as Prime Minister on four occasions referred to slavery as the “foulest crime” in British history.
Brent Council’s cabinet approved a report on Monday 7th September that noted:
“In a parallel piece of work a review of names of buildings, places and streets in Brent with associations with historical figures involved in the slave trade was undertaken. Gladstone Park, Gladstone Park Gardens and Gladstone Park Primary School were identified for further review. The school is an academy and therefore any renaming will be a matter for its governing body.”
“It is proposed that Brent schools are to be invited to take part in an exercise to rename Gladstone Park by the October half term holidays. This may have an impact on Gladstone Park Gardens, which will be subject to public consultation. The council will also engage in full discussion with the Friends of Gladstone Park.”
20. Leeds Statue Review
A review of statues in Leeds has found that most people want them to stay where they are. The findings will be published on 14 October 2020.
Sor far, over 800 people responded, many mentioning the Woodhouse Moor Queen Victoria statue defaced in June.
There were also suggestions of new commemorations for people from Leeds including Olympic boxer Nicola Adams.
“The vast majority of responses were for little or no change and we have listened to the voices of the people who fed back in that process.”
21. Vandalised Statues
The Statue of Winston Churchill on Parliament Square has been vandalised during the recent Extinction Rebellion protests. A statue in Kent commemorating the long service of Queen Elizabeth II has also been vandalised. This comes as polling reveals massive support for tougher sentences for those vandalising monuments and statues.