Decolonising Scotland’s museums

The overwhelming whiteness of cultural institutions is being challenged, says Lisa Williams, writing for Museums Association.

Efforts by Black activists, artists, historians and curators to push for the decolonising of museum and gallery spaces in Edinburgh, and across Scotland, have been gathering pace over the past few years. Black scholars such as June Evans, Geoff Palmer and Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (national poet for Scotland), have been highlighting the Black presence in Edinburgh for decades.

The response to interventions and conversations with institutions have at times been frustrating or traumatic, ranging from a lack of interest to racist responses from audiences. The events of 2020 have changed the landscape entirely, leading to initiatives in Edinburgh and across the country that are now officially encouraged at both council and government level.

Artists and curators such as Claricia Parinussa and Natasha Ruwona have explicitly challenged the overwhelming whiteness of cultural institutions, through sector-specific seminars.

Barbados-born Artist Alberta Whittle, who will be representing Scotland at the 2022 Venice Biennale 

Meanwhile, Barbados-born artist and curator Alberta Whittle continues to squarely confront Scotland’s colonial past through award-winning film installations and exhibitions, and will be representing Scotland at the Venice Biennale in 2022.

Black curators and academics are in positions to influence policy, such as artist Sekai Machache, artist policy officer for the Scottish Contemporary Art Network, and Yahya Barry, a trustee at Creative Scotland.

There have been calls for a museum of empire, colonialism, slavery and migration by the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, and for a museum of Black Scottish heritage by Eunice Olumide, the Edinburgh-born model, broadcaster and curator, among others.

The Black History Walks of Edinburgh that I first developed in 2017 stop at prominent galleries and museums. Many staff from Edinburgh’s heritage institutions have attended, leading them to commission popular in-house Black history tours.

Around the time of the launch, cultural institutions were just beginning to invite more Black artists to interrogate their colonial legacies, such as the Mercury prize-winning band Young Fathers’ work with the National Galleries of Scotland. There is also the Chronicles project, which engaged young people from Edinburgh to tell the hidden stories of the National Museum of Scotland, and was led by Glasgow-based artist Thulani Rachia, and Scottish-based collective Project X.

Museums and art galleries across the city have commissioned blogs, films and talks examining the colonial history of their paintings and artefacts in new ways. This has rapidly accelerated over the past 18 months, and will hopefully lead to permanent changes.

The National Museum of Scotland recently commissioned me to write a blog with a fresh perspective on artefacts in its collection that relate to Caribbean enslavement, and then gathered a group of activists and academics to co-create new interpretation panels.

The National Trust for Scotland, Collective centre for contemporary art and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh are reassessing everything from recruitment practices and equitable partnerships to polyvocal interpretation, learning plenty about themselves in the process.

The Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums project began at the end of 2020, sponsored by the Scottish government and coordinated by Museums Galleries Scotland. This aims to support the 400 museums and galleries across the country to critically interrogate their colonial collections and their practices, building on and informed by the work of anti-racist activists.

In Edinburgh, the Slavery and Colonialism Legacy Review Group forms part of the council’s response to Black Lives Matter. This group is evaluating the legacy of slavery and colonialism in the city’s built environment. The directors of Edinburgh’s historical archives are trying to provide better access and develop partnerships with Black and Asian researchers, and the University of Edinburgh is providing fellowships for decolonial scholarship.

All this activity is encouraging, and shows how the Scottish government is supporting efforts to dismantle inherited colonial structures and ensure equal opportunities for Black people in heritage, not just in Edinburgh, but right across Scotland.

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