Reflections on Black Lives Matter, decolonisation and what museums can do next – Dr Errol Francis

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It’s been the most tumultuous year in my career in the arts. It has also been what we might call a perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic and then the Black Lives Matter protests which, as the summer progressed, became inseparable from each other. This is because the social and public health inequalities that have been exposed by the pandemic – high infection and mortality rates for minorities and the socially disadvantaged – also reflect an apparent disregard for the value of Black lives by the criminal justice systems both in the US and the UK.

Then, what seemed like an issue solely around criminal justice in the US, not only became globalised but began to shine a bright light upon museums, heritage organisations and, of course, public statuary

The statue of Edward Colston being dumped into the River Avon after being toppled by protestors in Bristol

The protests and direct actions in relation to the killing of George Floyd alerted people to injustices elsewhere. So, attention was turned to public monuments that were symptomatic of a wider and deeper concern by members of the public, as well as those of us who work in museums, about how we address colonial history.

My own response was to ask myself a straightforward question in order to arrive at a position: what have museums got to do with Black Lives Matter? Or, to put it another way: I asked myself what’s the connection – directly or indirectly – between museums and the perpetration of violence, even murderous violence, against Black people or more broadly the colonised subjects of empire? I tried to answer the question by looking into the history of specific objects: the Benin Bronzes and, also, a garment with a bullet hole in it that I’d seen in an ethnographic museum.

Dan Hick’s new book and the Benin Bronzes

When I saw the photographs and read the account of the British 1897 Punitive Expedition (which Professor Dan Hicks has brilliantly addressed in his new book The Brutish Museums) it was a very disturbing account of the most cataclysmic violence perpetrated upon the ancient Kingdom of Benin by the British Army. The military invasion resulted in an entire civilisation destroyed, its cultural assets seized, and the spoils distributed amongst various British and European museums. [Here is a photo of the looters, taken in 1897]

A photo of members of the 1897 Punitive Expedition against the Kingdom of Benin removing looted artworks

In the case of the garment with a bullet hole, I concluded that it had most likely been taken from the corpse of a dead Sudanese fighter in the 1898 colonial Battle of Omdurman, possibly even by the British soldier who had shot him dead, before taking the object back to the UK and donating it to a museum. I wondered about the morality of displaying an object like this which was, in effect, a trophy of death. This was just two examples of a much wider problem of cultural assets acquired, at worst violently, in other cases simply without consent or with the proceeds of slavery, that are now distributed across many national and local collections in museums owned by UK museums.

The violent background to these particular objects made me reflect critically upon the statements of ‘solidarity’ released by various museums over the summer. I also wondered why they would mention George Floyd but not similar cases of British Black men, like Kevin Clarke

Police body camera image of Kevin Clarke being restrained by police in, March 2018

This was a vulnerable, mentally ill African Caribbean man to whom, in 2018, police needlessly applied leg restraints and handcuffs in such a way that he, like Floyd, appealed that he couldn’t breathe, and later tragically died. The inquest into the death of Mr Clarke was only concluded earlier this month and resulted in strong criticism of the actions of the police. So I also questioned why museums, many of whom had previously committed themselves to what they call ‘decolonisation’, didn’t make the connection between the Black Lives Matter campaign and the acquisition of objects obtained as the result of even worse acts of colonial violence, which in the extent of their brutality, are far in excess of what happened to Kevin Clarke in London and George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Therefore, this is why Culture& released the Black Lives Matter Charter for the UK heritage sector: to deal with this gaping moral contradiction. It was drafted in consultation with our New Museum School trainees and you can read it on our website.

Culture& New Museum School trainees

The Charter not only attempts to define decolonisation in a succinct but thoroughgoing manner. We especially wanted to stress that, if decolonisation were to be meaningful, it must necessarily entail a series of actions that aim to redistribute power and open up the museum – as a closed disputed space, as a territory – to a more diverse population. To decolonise is basically to transfer power and to cede territory and I’m very concerned about the revisionism to which the term decolonisation has been subjected: too often used to describe actions which are at best tokenistic and at worst ineffective. Therefore, the Charter proposes a series of actions that address:

  • the diversification of the workforce at all levels
  • dealing with contested provenance, restitution and repatriation
  • revealing the colonial histories of objects
  • opening up interpretation and education to diverse narratives
  • devising public programmes that engage more inclusive audiences
  • protecting the lives of those in their workforce at risk from Covid-19

Anything less than this is not decolonisation but a misuse of the term. Now, I’m delighted to say, that the Charter has received international, indeed global attention and Culture& is currently engaged in dialogues and in some cases working closely with a number of museums – as well as sector support organisations – about how they can implement the Charter. So, I urge you as leaders and practitioners within our museums and heritage organisations, to do likewise because it will invigorate your diversity agenda.

I must say, Culture& is not only talking the talk, we are walking it as well. Our New Museum School programme has so far produced 130 brilliant young talented graduates who are now working in various heritage organisations all over the UK. We’ve partnered with leading museums and heritage organisations who’ve opened up their collections to fresh interpretations. These new perspectives on heritage can be seen in the wonderful podcasts that our trainees have produced. You can find them on the Culture& website and listen to them. I am delighted to let you know that the Culture& New Museum School is about to go post graduate, to help our alumni break through the glass ceilings they now face, in an exciting new programme we are developing with the University of Leicester and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

In our public programmes we work with museums and arts organisations that want to open up their collections to new audiences and fresh talent. Our Cyborgs 2019 Afrofuturist programme was a collaboration with the Wellcome Collection

Rebekah Ubuntu an Afrofuturist sound, video and performance work exploring unbelonging, questing and intersectional utopianism through the speculative gaze of an artificially intelligent cyborg.

It was an evening of performance, conversation, screenings and displays where we rethought the boundaries that are perceived between human and non-human, or between races, genders or classes. We worked with artists, academics, designers and engineers to challenge assumptions about what we classify as animal, human or machine, and asked: to whose voices do we listen when designing the future. These are very important questions to pose in relation to a scientific/medical collection, steeped in colonialism, and exemplifies the way Culture& works: to creatively engage with heritage to address the future as well as the past and present.

The statue of slave trader Robert Milligan being removed from the Museum of London Docklands

So, to return the issue of public statuary, please don’t feel intimidated by the recent pronouncements by the Secretary of State for Culture (who seems to want to micromanage museums by getting involved in curatorial decisions) nor indeed the Chair of the Charity Commission. They’ve both tried to bully and intimidate heritage organisations into ignoring the public clamour for the uncomfortable truths about our colonial heritage to be addressed. The reason why members of the public have resorted to the iconoclasm of tearing down statues is because they’ve not been listened to and in some cases, such as in Bristol and London, years of negotiations have been met with rejection.

I some cases of statuary, I can see no reason why we should continue to commemorate, for example, a man like Cecil Rhodes who not only said, about being White: ‘I contend that we are the first race in the world, and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.’ He also laid the foundations for an apartheid state and we are still dealing with the aftermath of the human disaster it caused. However, I don’t think we always need to remove effigies like these. In some cases, we do indeed need to take them down, as the Museum of London has done with the statue of the C18th slave trader Robert Milligan, because they are now simply an affront to our contemporary morality. But we can also recontextualise them, as has brilliantly and humorously happened with the Duke of Wellington equestrian statue that stands outside the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow.

Duke of Wellington equestrian statue outside the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow’s Royal Exchange Square

It was in response to a petition, by a public grown tired of these dated celebrations of militarism, that Glasgow City Council decided to allow the traffic cone to remain on the Duke’s head – placed by unknown persons. It’s a playful, non-destructive intervention which has given the statue a new fondness for Glaswegians. However, in other cases, we may well reposition such statuary, say, in a museum display about the history of colonialism. But I don’t think there’s only one way to deal with these monuments – but deal with them we must.

The pronouncements by some museum directors and politicians claiming that we are in the midst of a culture war are not only unhelpful but extremely provocative. We are not in a ‘war’ but an important period of intelligent reassessment of our national heritage. It’s an important questioning of, for example, the idea of the ‘encyclopaedic’ or ‘global’ museum, a notion which it does not appear that its supporters realise is in itself colonial, if not imperial, in its arrogant presumption that Britain should be the guardian of world culture. The empty plinths and vitrines that will become vacant after the repositioning and returning our disputed heritage will present exciting new opportunities for us to reboot our culture and address the unfinished business of colonialism. We can, in their place, display new objects that reflect a multicultural past and present, as a living culture, which in some cases may be intangible.

So, I will conclude with an example, that shows how exciting and delightful these new opportunities can be. It’s one of my favourites, from 2007, when I worked at Arts Council England, during the Bicentennial of the parliamentary abolition of the slave trade. It’s called Colonel Tarleton and Mrs Oswald Shooting by Yinka Shonibare curated by a curatorial trainee on the Inspire Fellowship Programme that I managed. It’s a great example, of what the late Stuart Hall called in his landmark 1999 paper Whose Heritage? a ‘production of ‘the new’ and the transgressive alongside the traditional and the ‘preservation of the past’. The National Gallery temporarily removed two portraits that usually hang in the Barry Rooms.

Johann Zoffany, Mrs Oswald (1763) and Joshua Reynolds, Portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton (1782)

They are depictions by Johann Zoffany and Joshua Reynolds of two aristocrats, Mary Oswald and Banastre Tarleton, whose wealth derived from colonialism and the works were repositioned in a room with their slave trading activities explained. In the place where the paintings had once hung, the Gallery commissioned a brilliantly sardonic intervention by contemporary artist Yinka Shonibare

The artist depicted the subjects of the portraits, Oswald and Tarleton, as headless mannequins, dressed in Dutch wax printed cotton textile, holding rifles and shooting up at a pheasant. The installation was not only elegant and beautiful, it addressed a missing narrative about how the Gallery had previously displayed the portraits; and it drew an unprecedentedly diverse audience.

So what I think we must do next is support and follow the examples of the National Trust, Historic Royal Palaces and even Her Majesty the Queen in reviewing our collections for their colonial links, making the research and interpretations public. We must rejuvenate our workforce with fresh diverse talent so we can devise programmes that are relevant and appeal to a younger generation for whom there is some evidence are increasingly regarding museums as culturally irrelevant. We are living through an exciting renaissance of culture and heritage and those who think they can turn back the clock on the scholarship, inquiry and passion that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement are simply on the wrong side of history.