Geoff Palmer to chair Scottish museums’ enquiry into slavery and empire

Steering group to recommend how museums represent country’s colonial history
Decolonising Museums Slavery
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Rebecca Atkinson
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Geoff Palmer
Geoff Palmer

Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) has announced the scientist and human rights activist Geoff Palmer as chair of an independent steering group to investigate and recommend how existing and new museum collections in Scotland can better “recognise and represent” a more accurate portrayal of the country’s colonial and slavery history.

The group, which is sponsored by the Scottish government and coordinated by MGS and Glasgow Life, was announced in September. It is part of Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums: Addressing Our Colonial Legacy project, and will explore how the history of Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire, colonialism, and transatlantic slavery can be told by Scotland’s museums.

Palmer is professor emeritus in the School of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, and the first black professor in Scotland. He regularly writes and speaks about Scotland’s role in slavery and colonialism and he brings to the steering group a wealth of knowledge and experience as an anti-racism campaigner.

He will head up the steering group, alongside seven confirmed members: Silence Chihuri from the Fair Justice System for Scotland Group; Foysol Choudhury from Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equalities Council; Abeer Eladany from the University of Aberdeen; Jatin Haria from the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights; Lewis Hou from the Science Ceilidh and the Anti-Racist Educator Collective; Steph Scholten from ICOM Ethics Committee and MGS Board member; and Zandra Yeaman from the Hunterian at the University of Glasgow.

Further names will be confirmed this month.

“It is a great honour to serve as the chair of this new independent steering group,” Palmer said in a statement. “Scotland was involved in slavery and colonialism. The history of this involvement is distributed in our museums in a manner which does not allow an accurate portrayal of this history.

“The outcome of the activities of our steering group will be to enable museums to use their collections to give an accurate account of Scotland’s involvement in slavery and colonialism. This new educational resource will improve race and community relations within our diverse society.”

Lucy Casot, the chief executive officer of Museums Galleries Scotland, said: “Scotland’s museum sector is increasingly vocal in their commitment to use their collections to acknowledge and confront Scotland’s role in slavery and colonialism, and the social, economic, and cultural impacts of it.

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“We look forward to the recommendations from the steering group, which will deepen our learning so we can further support museums to challenge and critically interrogate their own practices and collections.”

One of the project’s outcomes is a national consultation to establish public and expert perspectives on how museums can contribute to representing and reflecting our slavery and colonialism history. A related exercise to identify the work already in progress in this area is now underway.

As a result of this project, and based on the evidence gathered, the steering group will make a set of recommendations to the Scottish government in 2021 on how museum collections and spaces be used to explore slavery and colonialism.

Geoff Palmer is speaking at the Black Lives Matter - anti-racism and museums session on Monday 2 November at Conference 2020. See the full programme and book your place here

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