The Labour MP for Hackney, Diane Abbott, has said she is “surprised” by a decision taken by the trustees of London's Museum of the Home to leave up a statue of Robert Geffrye, the founder of the 18th-century almshouses which house the museum, whose wealth was partly derived from forced labour and the slave trade.
The board of trustees announced their decision this week following a public consultation with local residents in the north-east London borough, which found that a majority of respondents wanted the statue taken down.
In a statement on its website, the museum said that although the overall response was in favour of removing the statue, the “feedback showed that what to do with the statue is a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions”.
It continued: “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.”
Following the announcement, Abbott told the Londoner newspaper: “I think it’s important not to get bogged down in debates about statues rather than the very real issues of racial injustice that the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to raise.
"But I am surprised that the museum has chosen to ignore local people and keep the statute of the slave trader in pride of place.
"Glorifying a man who made his money out of slavery is completely inappropriate in a diverse area like Hackney.”
Her concerns were echoed by mayor of Hackney, Phil Glanville, who said: “This was an opportunity to send a very clear message about Hackney’s values and the museum’s role in our borough at an important time, when people across the world are looking to organisations to make bold statements and reflect the strength of feeling within their communities.
“Many local people will feel very uncomfortable about this decision, especially after so many took the time to respond to the consultation.
Statement from the board
The museum's trustees said in a statement: “The board believes that the museum should respond to the issues raised by this debate by continuing with its vision of change at a fundamental level, by diversifying the museum’s workforce, creative partners, content and programming to become more representative and inclusive.
“The board feels 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.”
The museum, which dropped Geffrye’s name in December and is currently closed for redevelopment, said that when it reopens to the public it will “reinterpret the statue honestly and transparently to tell the history of Geffrye's career and his connections with the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans”.
The museum said it would work with black artists and the community in Hackney to use the statue as a platform for discussion and creative response.
The Museum of the Home’s decision comes amid a fierce debate over the fate of statues and monuments in the public realm that honour people who had links to colonialism and slavery, following the toppling of the statue of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston in May.
Several museums have since taken steps to acknowledge their historic connections to exploitation. The Horniman Museum in south-east London reopened its indoor spaces this week with a new panel that details how the Horniman family's wealth was indirectly derived from the British Empire's trade in opium.