The Museum of the Home is considering moving its statue of 17th-century lord mayor Robert Geffrye, whose fortune was partly derived from the slave trade, to a less prominent position.
In a statement last week, the east London museum said: “We feel that the statue of Robert Geffrye on the front of the museum's buildings does not promote the sense of belonging that is so important for our visitors, and fundamental to the museum's values.”
The museum said it had been “listening to many views and considering all options concerning the display of the Geffrye statue”.
The statement continued: “We believe there is potential to retain the statue on site but in an alternative and less prominent space, where we can better tell the full story of the history of the buildings and Robert Geffrye's life, including his involvement in transatlantic slavery.”
Geffrye was an English merchant whose legacy was used to set up the almshouses that now house the museum, though he is not linked to the institution's founding or collections. He was involved in the East India Company and Royal African Company, invested in the slave trade and part-owned a slave ship.
The museum faced controversy last year when its board of trustees decided that the statue would remain in its alcove above the entrance to the museum’s central chapel, despite a public consultation conducted in partnership with Hackney Council showing that the local community was strongly in favour of its removal. A series of protests took place outside the museum following the announcement.
It later emerged that museum officials had come under pressure from the then-culture secretary Oliver Dowden to keep the figure in place.
The U-turn has been welcomed by local MP Diane Abbott, who was among those to criticise the earlier decision to retain the statue.
The museum said any decision to move the statue would follow due process and government guidance. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is expected to issue guidelines on its “retain and explain” policy soon.
The statement continued: “As a Grade I listed building, there is legislation that the museum must take into account in making any decision. The museum will work closely with its stakeholders as anticipated additional guidelines are issued by the DCMS on effective decisions concerning heritage, as well as the process around Listed Building Consent.”
The institution is currently developing a curatorial programme to explain and contextualise the statue on site. It has installed a panel at ground level beneath the statue with a brief overview of who Geffrye was, including his connections with the forced labour and trading of enslaved people from Africa, and an acknowledgement that the statue is the subject of intense debate.
The statement added: “The museum continues to develop its programme of curatorial work explaining and re-contextualising the statue and exploring themes of migration, race and identity in the context of 'home'. Through this programme we confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the museum buildings, and fulfil our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”