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Scotland's economy was built on the British Empire and slavery. Now our museums are facing up to that

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer...Photograph by Martin Shields
Professor Sir Geoff Palmer...Photograph by Martin Shields

By Sir Geoff Palmer

Museums hold a special place in my heart, as they offered a haven for me when I first came to the United Kingdom from Jamaica more than 60 years ago. History and education live in museums, and I believe museums can and should be a haven for all. I was honoured to chair the steering group for the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums project, which this week has made recommendations on how Scotland’s involvement in empire, colonialism, and historic slavery can be addressed using museum collections and spaces.

Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums is a national project, sponsored by the Scottish Government. An amendment to a motion in the Scottish Parliament in June 2020 called for a museum of slavery and reflected more than 20 years of campaigning for museums to address the legacies of empire, colonialism, and historic slavery.

The parliamentary motion initiated Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums as a project. I was incredibly pleased that the government committed to this in their parliamentary motion. It shows recognition for the lasting impact that the legacies have had on society in Scotland and a commitment to address them.

The project has resulted in six recommendations made by the project steering group. These recommendations outline how existing and future museum collections and spaces can better recognise and represent Scotland’s complex histories, as part of a national commitment to anti-racism.

The recommendations mark a milestone in Scotland’s tradition as a forward-looking nation: we seek to acknowledge the part we have played in shaping the world of today and are ready to see that glorious and inglorious histories co-exist.

Scotland is facing up to the reality that, for more than two centuries, its economy was closely tied to imperial trade and conquest, including the enslavement of human beings including my ancestors and those of thousands of people in Scotland. People from all over Scotland were participants in and drivers of the British Empire, both at home and overseas, and the profits of these ventures helped to build the cities, towns, villages, homes, and infrastructure that are part of our society today. These legacies have profound human consequences for all people in Scotland: developing and advancing racist and prejudiced views that persist today.

The recommendations mark a landmark in our collective work to recognise and address these legacies. I, and many other activists, artists, historians, curators, and anti-racist organisations, from communities which experience racism, have long been advocating for museums to acknowledge Scotland’s role in imperial trade and colonial conquest. And also to recognise the contributions of those from ethnically diverse backgrounds to Scotland.

Our efforts have often been met with resistance and racism. However, without this hard work and campaigning, including for a museum dedicated to Scotland’s role in empire and slavery, these recommendations would not exist.

A fundamental issue was highlighted by consultation undertaken with Black and minority ethnic people. This stressed that, for many Black and minority ethnic people, not only are museums part of the cultural landscape of racism, but that, in their current state, they are contributing to the problem.

This has eroded the relationship between Black and minority ethnic communities and our museums and galleries, leading to a lack of trust. Mistrust is a serious societal issue and there are ways that institutions can address this.

Transparency, a willingness to admit to and learn from mistakes, and a commitment to working together can support the development of relationships over time. The recommendations offer a chance to develop understanding through education and to build trust, which will lead to meaningful progress. It is vital to earn this trust if museums and galleries are to truly serve all of Scotland’s communities and people.

From the onset, the Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums steering group acknowledged that central to this work is the understanding that racism is a consequence of our history and is part of the cultural landscape in which we all exist, and thus damages us all. While the priority for this project has been to amplify the voices and views of those who experience racism, the implementation of these recommendations will help to improve the ways in which Scotland’s museums and galleries interact with all their audiences.

Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 27, is the statement that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts.” The recommendations aim to ensure that this progress can truly be achieved. A single museum or exhibition that tells stories is not enough to support important change. Structures need to be embedded within institutions to support museums and galleries to reflect modern society, and to understand, explore, and share the continuing impacts of empire, colonialism, and historic slavery with their audiences.

There are examples of good practice by museums and galleries, but it is clear from the recommendations that further work is required to continue to acknowledge and reflect the legacies of empire, colonialism, and historic slavery.

Hundreds of years of erasure of these histories can only be resolved through long-term, sustained, and ongoing commitment to change, including from the Scottish Government, the national development body Museums Galleries Scotland, and heritage institutions across the country. Museums have the power to support Scotland in its commitment to anti-racism and to tell the full history of the nation’s past and contribute to its future. This work may be challenging and uncomfortable but will be worth it to gain the trust of all of Scotland’s people.