The statue of Robert Geffrye stands above the chapel door of the former almshouses

Museum of the Home decides to leave Geffrye statue in place

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 31.07.2020
MP Diane Abbott is among several local figures to have questioned board's decision
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.

Comments

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Anonymous
03.08.2020, 09:12
Surely statues are celebratory or commemorative, and marking the life of someone who benefitted from the slave trade in this way is highly questionable. The museum can most certainly address Geffrye's life within its interpretation, without retaining the statue outside, especially when their consultation resoundingly supported its removal.
01.08.2020, 12:01
Why did the Board of the Museum of the Home waste precious resources consulting us, the local residents, on the preferred option for the statue, to then arrogantly ignore our clear preference for it to be removed/relocated. It will take much time and effort before the Museum is able to tackle to pain it has caused and mend its relationship with the community within which it sits.

Did the Board learn nothing from the events in Bristol, where the authorities ignored the overriding public view that a slave trader's statue should be removed from its place of prominence and honour?

Undoubtedly, precious resources will have to be diverted to increase security, to protect the statue of the slave trader Sir Robert Geffrye (even though it is only a replica) if it is to remain in situ.
Anonymous
01.08.2020, 11:12
This is a very sensible and balanced decision that should act as a template of how to approach such difficult questions. The statue is effectively an exhibit at the museum. The presumption should always be that interpretation is better than erasing history. How will a child understand what is right or wrong if no examples of wrongs exist? The comment suggesting hashtag militancy and pressure on the museum's funders is a perfectly put example of what is wrong with the approach it advocates. Sorry, but its true.
05.08.2020, 22:38
On that reasoning, presumably you’d argue in favour of retaining on display statues of Jimmy Saville, with appropriate interpretation, as a useful warning to children of wrongdoing. And what about all those statues of those wrong ‘uns Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein in the interests os ‘balance’ (all carefully interpreted of course, in the intere
05.08.2020, 22:39
That last bit should be ... in the interests of ‘balance‘ (all carefully interpreted of course).
Anonymous
01.08.2020, 08:27
Well done to the trustees of the museum for standing firm. Let us hope other institutions will follow their lead and we can put an end to the current iconoclastic insanity.
31.07.2020, 13:40
This is very disappointing. Evidently the trustees have learnt nothing over the past few months. Perhaps some of their more empathetic funders will put gentle pressure on them. #geffryemustfall isn't trending yet, but let's hope it does.