Glasgow: Addressing Legacies of Slavery and Empire Benefits Us All

Nelson Cummins, Curator (Legacies of Slavery and Empire)
Old Glasgow Cross or The Trongate, John Knox, 1826, 1352 © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

Old Glasgow Cross or The Trongate

Images © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection

13th September 2023

First of all, I’m thrilled to be joining Glasgow Museums as Curator of Legacies of Slavery and Empire. I’m grateful to be following on from the excellent work of my predecessor Miles Greenwood and I am looking forward to building on this existing work.

My interest in histories of slavery and empire initially came about through a desire to understand more about my family history. My mother was born in St Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean at a time when it was a colony of the UK. Growing up, I became interested in how my mother could have been born a British citizen in a country thousands of miles away. Understanding more of my own family history and how it connects to empire has been at times a difficult and challenging experience; however, it has helped me to have a stronger sense of identity and self. It has led me to realise that histories and legacies of slavery and empire impact all of us and have deeply impacted and moulded the structures of the society we live in today.

In my previous role at the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights (CRER), I got an insight into some of the anti-racism work happening across the museums sector by working with several organisations, including Glasgow Museums, to coordinate talks and events for Black History Month and by supporting the work of Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH)by taking the OSCH group on Black history walking tours of Glasgow. I also contributed to the Curating Discomfortintervention the Hunterian Museum as one of the community curators. Being involved in this work has been valuable in showing me the key role museums can play in not only the telling of history but also exploring how the past shapes our present.

It feels like a key time, with lots of conversations and work happening in the area of addressing legacies of slavery and empire. In this context it is important to remind ourselves of why this is essential and strengthens the wider societal role museums play.

Much of modern-day racism is a direct consequence of histories of slavery and empire. Empires such as the British Empire relied on ideologies such as white supremacy to justify systems of colonial oppression and chattel slavery. Creating hierarchies was key to the maintenance of empire. Many of the stereotypes and racist attitudes held about Black and minority ethnic people in Scotland today have their origins in imperialist propaganda and racist ideals used to justify colonisation and transatlantic slavery.

Many of these ideals put forward a vision of whiteness as superior, connecting ideas of whiteness to the identity of the UK and Scotland. The 1661 Barbados Slave Code marked the first codified racialised system of chattel slavery. It inspired the system of slavery that developed across the British Empire. The code established the idea of enslaved Black people as property and distinguished them as having less rights and protection than white servants and indentured labourers living in Barbados. It established a hierarchy where enslaved Africans were not legally viewed as people and had lower status than anyone who was white.

Ideas of white supremacy are not as celebrated and accepted in society today, yet racism still exists on a structural level in Scotland. In Scotland, if you are from a minority ethnic background you are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than someone who is white Scottish or British. Minority ethnic people are more likely to experience discrimination in employment, healthcare and housing, while racial hate crime is the most common form of hate crime in Scotland.

Museums are not isolated from the rest of society and are heavily impacted by structural racism. This creates a lack of access to career opportunities in the sector for minority ethnic people. Hold On. Diversity and Managing in the Arts, a report from 2020, revealed that only 2.7% of the museums, galleries and libraries workforce in the UK are from Black and minority ethnic communities. This is just one example of the many ways in which racism shapes museum spaces.

Legacies of slavery and empire have also deeply influenced the development of museum spaces and collections. There are many museum buildings with connections to slavery. In Glasgow, this includes the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), which is housed in the former mansion of William Cunninghame (1731–99), an enslaver who made a fortune from tobacco and sugar produced by enslaved people. It further includes Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The precursor of the present-day Kelvingrove opened in 1870 in Kelvingrove House, the former mansion of Patrick Colquhoun (1745–1820), a colonial merchant and a civic leader, whose businesses profited from goods produced by enslaved people.

Museum collections have also been shaped by slavery and colonialism in a range of ways. Whether it’s artworks that were donated to museums by enslavers, treasures looted during colonial wars or artefacts acquired by merchants who made fortunes from an oppressive and unequal system of colonialism, there are many objects within museum collections that connect to slavery and empire.

Glasgow Museums is no different here. When looking through our collections you can get a sense of the depth of colonial ties present in our museums. From children’s booksto coins to chocolate tins, there are many different types of objects, from regions all over the world, which have a range of colonial connections. This creates a picture of a city deeply embedded in empire and shaped by ideologies of imperialism. Some of these objects will be shown in a new permanent display that we are currently preparing for Kelvingrove, due to open in October 2023, called Glasgow – City of Empire.

A museum, however, goes well beyond its objects. In Glasgow, our museums exist in a city deeply influenced and shaped by slavery and empire. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the growth and economic development of Glasgow was tied to slavery derived wealth, with enslavers who made fortunes from goods produced by enslaved labour, such as tobacco and sugar, having a significant economic, social and civic impact on the city. Between 1636 and 1834, Glasgow Town Council had 79 Lord Provosts, 40 of who had some connection to chattel slavery. This includes James Ewing (1775–1853), an enslaver who played a key role in establishing several banks across Glasgow and in creating Glasgow Necropolis.

This history and how it impacts the present day creates a need to highlight how Glasgow benefitted from slavery and empire in the past and outline how those histories have shaped Glasgow’s present and created the city we live in today. Sharing this history and making those connections is part of the role museums must play in anti-racist work and striving for a more equal society. This involves museums acting as community spaces, and sites of education and outreach. It also includes museums needing to have what can be uncomfortable conversations about how they have benefitted from histories of slavery and empire.

I’m optimistic about the next couple of years and feel very lucky to be working in an organisation with such a high level of knowledge and expertise. I see my role as being here to add something to the existing work and voices present within Glasgow Museums and to support colleagues with work that is aiming to create a better future for us all.

Nelson Cummins,
Curator (Legacies of Slavery and Empire)