Decolonisation in Scotland - Museums Association

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Decolonisation in Scotland

By Museums Galleries Scotland

Across Scotland, local authorities and Scottish Government have commissioned work to address the legacies of historic slavery and empire. Museums are working to explore these histories within their collections and programmes, building on foundations laid by, and relationships forged with, equalities and heritage organisations.

At a national level, strategic projects will further support the development of the sector in this area over the next decade or more. Museums Galleries Scotland manage Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums, a project led by an independent steering group and commissioned by Scottish Government. It is exploring how museums can help empower people to understand Scotland’s connections with empire, slavery and racism. A national consultation will inform a set of recommendations from the project steering group to the Scottish Government in 2022.

Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) in Scottish Heritage, an AHRC-funded project led by University of Strathclyde, is examining what EDI looks like in the sector, to understand why initiatives fail, and to establish what can be done to overcome those challenges. It seeks to provide the sector with meaningful and sustainable ways of working going forward.

Museum exhibitions at the University of Aberdeen and beyond have explored how slavery and empire are embedded in the history of the north-east, where these connections have had less focus than other cities in Scotland. Last month, the University returned one of the ‘Benin bronzes’ – the Head of an Oba, looted by British troops from the Palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897 – to partners in Nigeria: one of the first such repatriations in the world.

Following a redevelopment, the David Livingstone Birthplace reopened, fore-fronting Livingstone’s connection to the East African trade in enslaved people, abolition, missionaries, and colonialism, and to highlight the stories of the hundreds of local people who worked with Livingstone.

The appointment of a curator focusing on the legacies of slavery and empire has supported Glasgow Life museums to better tell the story of the impact the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and the British Empire has had on the city and beyond. The University of Glasgow’s Curating Discomfort project is challenging The Hunterian to adopt more critical approaches to issues of race, identity, gender and colonial histories, offering the opportunity to reassess traditional interpretation, reshape curatorial thinking and establish new narratives.

Scotland has a long, and often challenging, history to be reckoned with. Our museums recognise their obligation to address the legacies of slavery and empire in a way that draws connections to contemporary realities, embraces the range of views and experiences of these histories, and offers an opportunity to build and repair relationships. MGS is dedicated to supporting museums to better understand and communicate challenging histories, and to transform our organisations to better serve our workforce, visitors, and communities.