A dedicated space should be created to tell the story of Scotland’s role in imperial trade, colonial conquest and historic slavery, according to a long-awaited report published by the Empire, Slavery & Scotland's Museums Steering Group.
The recommendation is one of six put forward by the group, which was set up by the Scottish Government to examine how the country’s museums can better represent the history of colonialism and slavery.
The project was managed by Museums Galleries Scotland, with the independent steering group chaired by scientist and human rights activist Geoff Palmer. Over almost two years, the group conducted one of the most comprehensive surveys ever taken of the Scottish public’s views on museums, hearing from more than 5,000 individuals as well as consulting directly with experts and communities.
- Scotland should create a dedicated space to address our role in empire, colonialism, and historic slavery. A new organisation should be created to lead this work.
- Museums should ensure anti-racism is embedded in their workplaces and public spaces.
- Museums should involve the people of Scotland in shaping their work through co-production, to promote cultural democracy and participation for all.
- Museums should commit to research, interpret, and share the histories of Scotland’s links to empire, colonialism, and historic slavery.
- Museums should support efforts to promote and embed race equality and anti-racism in the curricula in a meaningful, effective, and sustainable way.
- Scottish Government should demonstrate their support for restitution and repatriation of looted or unethically acquired items in Scottish collections.
In his foreword to the report, Palmer said consultation with Black and minority ethnic people had highlighted a “fundamental issue” that museums are not only part of the cultural landscape of racism but that, “in their current state, they are contributing to the problem”.
He wrote: “This has eroded the relationship between Black and minority ethnic communities in Scotland and our museums and galleries, leading to a lack of trust.”
Palmer said the report’s recommendations are geared towards helping museums rebuild trust, and said the sector could achieve this through transparency, a willingness to admit to and learn from mistakes, and a commitment to working together to develop relationships.
A set of resources has been published alongside the report to help museums work towards the recommendations.
Abeer Eladany, another steering group member, said the group had been keen to ensure the recommendations were concrete and achievable.
Eladany, who is curatorial assistant at University of Aberdeen Museums and Special Collections, said: “We wanted to make sure that the recommendations mean something and they’re not vague.”
She said it was important that the recommendations were acted upon quickly. “What I really like is that we are going through a period of social change,” she added. “It’s not just a short-term thing, it’s a long-term procedure to tell the whole truth and not just bits of it.”
Eladany said the group had deliberately avoided mentioning the word “museum” in their recommendation to create a dedicated space to address empire and slavery to avoid limiting the scope of the work. They were also clear that the space could not be attached to any existing museum or institution, she said: “If it is attached then it would inherit the structures of that institution.”
A new organisation led by “people who understand how racism looks and manifests in our institutions” is now being set up to lead on the creation of the space, said Eladany. Members of the existing steering group will act as the organisation’s board of trustees for the first 18 months in order to carry the project forward.
Eladany said that the voice of young people had been particularly important throughout the consultation, and she had been encouraged by how much they had engaged in the project.
“Young people have very strong views and they were totally engaged,” she said. “There is passion for museums - but I think we need to do a lot of work to live up to their expectations.”
Eladany said the steering group had also been heartened by the strength of public support for the project. “The public, human rights experts and museum professionals really support the recommendations. They’re not coming from us, they’re coming from the surveys based on people’s views,” she said.
“It is the biggest survey of public attitudes to museums that has been done in Scotland,” added Eladany. “As a sector we will learn from it for many years to come.”
Scotland's culture minister Neil Gray said: “We will carefully consider these important recommendations and discuss them with the steering group, before responding to them. We will continue to work closely with MGS to raise awareness of the role Scotland played in slavery and empire and to ensure our collections reflect this.”
Sector bodies have welcomed the recommendations. Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association (MA), said: “We welcome and support all of the recommendations of the Empire, Slavery & Scotland's Museums review group. We hope that government will now respond positively to the detailed recommendations, including the need for funding to deliver against the goals that are set out in the report. As the MA we will support our members and the wider sector to work with our communities to tackle racism and to research and share the histories of slavery and empire in Scotland.
“Thanks to MGS for conducting a timely, rigorous and inclusive review. We look forward to working with colleagues across Scotland to deliver the recommendations of the report and to sharing its findings and best practice with colleagues across the UK, in particular at our conference in Edinburgh in November.”
The steering group members are Geoff Palmer, chair; Jatin Haria, deputy chair (Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights); Abeer Eladany (University of Aberdeen); Lewis Hou (Science Ceilidh and The Anti-Racist Educator); Parveen Ishaq (Edinburgh and Lothians Regional Equalities Council); Churnjeet Mahn (Strathclyde University); Steph Scholten (The Hunterian, ICOM Ethics Committee, MGS Board Member); Elena Trimarchi (David Livingstone Centre); Lisa Williams (Edinburgh Caribbean Association); Zandra Yeaman (The Hunterian).