Glasgow Museums cares for many objects that provide testimony to the histories of the British Empire and transatlantic slavery. The history of Glasgow Museums is itself inextricably tied to the history of the British Empire, from the foundation of some of its buildings to the development of its collections as Britain took control of more and more territories around the world. The collections include objects taken violently as loot by British forces, cultural heritage material acquired by missionaries, portraits of merchants who were complicit in profiting from the enslavement of black people, objects that speak to people’s experiences of Empire in Scotland, and much more.
Our Anti-racism Stance
Glasgow Museums has a legal and moral duty to play its part in eliminating the evil of racism in our city. Racism has its roots in transatlantic slavery and colonialism. Both systems have been crucial in the development of Glasgow as a city, as well as its museums. As museums engage people with the past, we can do more to build an understanding of how racism has developed as a legacy of colonialism.
Regardless of the colour of our skin, we should all have the right to access culture and heritage equally. That heritage should be presented as honestly and fully as possible, which involves confronting how racism is part of our history.
Some of our galleries, displays and narratives no longer reflect Glasgow Museums’ views or ambitions when it comes to tackling racism and addressing the legacies of slavery and empire. We know we can do more, and we are examining the museums service to identify how we need to change to meet our responsibility to become anti-racist.
Our Anti-racism Work
For many years Glasgow Museums has been working to address the legacies of slavery and empire within its collection. From the start of the 1990s, Glasgow Museums has established itself as an institution open to being a civic space where historical and cultural issues can be explored and challenged by all. The Open Museum, the Gallery of Modern Art, and St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art were all founded during this decade of socially radical modernism. The service is known for and dedicated to its ground-breaking approach to outreach, tackling of social issues and for its inclusion of the city’s diverse communities. Projects such as RENEW Afr-I-can, Celebrating Africa, the Migration Forum and Glaswegasians have told the stories of Glasgow’s diverse Diaspora’s descended from countries once colonised by the British. However, until Voices from Africa in 2007, the focus had primarily been on the stories of todays’ communities. We are now fully engaged with re-assessing the history of Glasgow, once the self-proclaimed Second City of Empire, and its imperial legacy. We are now also addressing how Glasgow Museums, as an organization, has benefitted from and been complicit in the histories of slavery and empire.
While many people see museums as comfortable spaces for education and enjoyment, many others do not. Research has shown that some people distrust museums, seeing them as buildings full of loot that organizations are reluctant to relinquish, and complicit in hiding the truth of the British Empire’s history. Glasgow Museums is committed to being open and transparent about our own history and practices, even when that information is incomplete or uncomfortable, and to encourage visitors to reflect on these topics in a critical way.
We understand the desire to connect with the lives and stories of enslaved and colonized people, and to understand their perspectives and experiences. These aren’t always our stories to tell, and we are committed to providing space for a range of people to share their perspectives.
Through funding from Museums Galleries Scotland we have been able to employ a curator of legacies of slavery and empire to drive forward this area of work and act as a catalyst for our anti-racism activity. We have made a lot of progress, but we are still in the early stages of fully understanding the collection within this context and what it means to our diverse audiences and the city of Glasgow. Much of the focus of our work in coming years will be framed around making a bigger difference.
Museums Galleries Scotland’s Strategy 2023-30 highlights the requirement for museums and galleries to take a participatory, anti-racist, and anti-ableist approach to their learning, programming and organisational culture.
Glasgow Museums is committed to embedding anti-racist practice and working across our services and supporting staff in their training and development to achieve this. Anti-racist practice is a key element of the Museums and Collections Service Plan and there are number of work strands that are progressing various aspects of our anti-racism practice. This activity is highlighted in the Glasgow Life Business Plan 2023-25.
In 2021 Glasgow Museums published a major research project to find out how its audiences and communities wanted it to address the topics of the British Empire and Transatlantic Slavery. The report helps us explore the questions of what slavery and empire means to us as a society in the present, whose stories these are to tell, and how we can do justice to these histories. The report can be seen here.
In 2022 Glasgow City Council published its annual Household Survey. This included research on people’s knowledge about Glasgow’s historic links to the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery and the level of interest in learning more about the city’s historic links with the slave trade. The report can be seen here.
Glasgow City Council also commissioned an audit of Glasgow’s historic connections to slavery and Atlantic commerce and its modern legacies. This gives a city-wide context to the work of Glasgow Museums. The report can be seen here.
These reports, combined with other ongoing research and surveys, inform the work that we do in this area.
Researching the Collection
Understanding the collection is the key element that allows us to engage meaningfully with its legacies of slavery and empire. The curatorial team have been researching and analysing aspects of the collection. This work is feeding into new catalogue records, new displays, publications public programming.
We have partnered with the University of Glasgow to undertake two collaborative PhDs that have provided useful insights into aspects of the collection. Craig Lambert’s thesis on Georgian Glasgow investigated the city’s relationship with slavery in the ‘enlightenment’ era. Marenka Thompson-Odlum explored Ideas of Race, Identity and Slavery amongst the Glasgow Merchant Elite through portraiture in the collection.
We partnered with National Museums Scotland and the National Maritime Museum on an Arts and Humanities Research Council pilot project, entitled Exchange: Community-Led Collections Research to work with South Asian, African and Caribbean diaspora organisations to answer research questions identified by these community groups. Glasgow Museums part of this project was centred around Lascar seamen and was carried out in partnership with the Bangladesh Association Glasgow and the Our Shared Cultural Heritage changemakers. This resulted in a play aboard the Tall Ship, a conference, a publication and a podcast. A new display is being developed at the Riverside Museum based on this work.
Glasgow Museums is a partner in the National Museums Scotland Reveal and Connect project, to carry out a survey and evaluation of African and Caribbean collections across Scotland. The project will establish a collaborative network to enable collection holders to engage with museums in Africa and the Caribbean and people of African and Caribbean descent in Scotland.
We are currently partners in the Transforming Collections: Reimagining Art, Nation and Heritage research project with the University of the Arts London. We are working on a case study relating to Maude Sulter an artist and writer, cultural historian, curator and gallerist of Ghanaian and Scottish heritage who lived and worked in Britain. Several works by her were acquired in 2021 through an initiative with Mother Tongue to collect works by artists of colour.
Re-interpreting the Collection
New understandings of the collection have led to a number of projects that have reinterpreted the collection through the lens of the legacies of slavery and empire.
Our Legacies of Slavery and Empire blog was created in 2018 and aims to draw attention to and explore the ways in which objects from our collection can shine a light on Glasgow’s relationship with transatlantic slavery. It includes articles written by the museums and collections team as well as guest bloggers. It can be viewed here. There are also a number of Glasgow Museums podcasts that deal with our work on slavery and empire. They can be accessed here.
Our Collections Navigator allows anyone to explore the collections online. As new research is undertaken on our objects this information feeds through to this resource. To help understand how the collections are linked to British imperialism and its legacies we have created a series of collection level descriptions that allow people to discover links to colonial violence, cultural colonialism, the exploitation of nature, transatlantic slavery, industry and the profits of empire, and the enduring legacies of empire. The resource can be found here.
As part of the Devolving Restitution: African Collections in UK Museums Beyond London project we commissioned Glasgow artists Jim Muotune to create a series of podcasts looking at our African collections. His work can be accessed here.
In collaboration with young people from the Our Shared Cultural Heritage initiative, a new display was created to sit within the centre hall of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. This highlights the importance of the museum’s relationship to slavery and empire. Ten interventions were also incorporated into the permanent displays which re-interpreted existing displays through the lens of legacies of slavery and empire. A major new display is currently under development for Kelvingrove that will explore these issues in more detail.
We also offer events and tours related to the legacies of slavery and empire as part of our public programme in our museum venues.
The Museum Test
The Our Shared Cultural Heritage initiative is a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to experiment with new ways for museums and heritage organisations to work better for young people. In Glasgow we established a group of young people who are being trained to critique and develop museum practices, known as Changemakers. They have created a Test for Museums to analyse if and how museum exhibitions represent colonialism, empire and slavery in an appropriate way. It has been developed with input and support from Museums Galleries Scotland and the Museums Association and is intended for the wider museum sector. It will be used in Glasgow Museums to assess existing displays and as a planning tool for the development of all future displays.
Our collection does not stand still. We are continually evaluating new objects and adding to the collection. A key focus of our current and future collecting is centred around representing more fairly and accurately the stories of people affected by slavery, imperialism and racism. This approach will be reflected in a revised Collections Development Strategy which is currently under development.
A key aspect in this endeavour was the Art Fund Renew project which created a capsule collection of contemporary Indian folk, street and fine art with work collected from West Bengal, Punjab and Assam, regions with links to Glasgow's South Asian diaspora roots. Details can be found here.
As part of the redisplay of the Cultural Connections gallery in Kelvingrove we commissioned a number of works from African diaspora artists in Glasgow. These included a Kente dress by Ghanaian fashion designer Naa Densua Tordzro, a film directed by Ghanaian musician and filmmaker Gameli Tordzro and a graphic poem by Tawona Sithole, a poet and playwright from Zimbabwe. These artists also co-curated the African Styles display within the gallery.
Through an Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund grant we developed the Revitalising Glasgow’s Migrant Community Collections project in 2016 to improve our understanding of migration and how it is represented in Glasgow Museums’ collection. This involved re-interpreting the existing collection with community curators and new community-led collecting to ensure that the contemporary diversity of Glasgow’s population was better represented. The project was undertaken in collaboration with the Scottish Refugee Council and GRAMnet, Glasgow University’s Refugee Asylum Seeker and Migration Network. We worked with a variety of groups including Kurdish, Afghan, Sudanese and Iranian communities. An exhibition of a new photographic collection will be displayed in the Migrant Voice exhibition at Kelvingrove in 2023.
Glasgow Museums has developed a collection of modern and contemporary artworks by artists with an African or Caribbean heritage who have trained, lived or exhibited in Scotland. At the heart of this growing collection was the 2018 Art Fund New Collecting Award project initiated by Mother Tongue. The New Collecting Award with Glasgow Museums begins to address this absence, speaking to issues of representation and decolonisation, and urges a re-imagining of Scottish art histories. The collection includes work by Tam Joseph, Maud Sulter, Donald Locke, Alberta Whittle and Aubrey Williams.
Recent collecting has also included the Sheku Bayoh Street sign that was erected by the Green Brigade - a group of anti-racist Celtic FC ultras – as part of a protest in the Merchant City, which they dedicated to Black civil rights leaders and Black people who died in police custody, as alternatives to streets currently named after merchants involved in the enslavement of Black people. A large number of placards from the Black Lives Matter demonstration on Glasgow Green in 2020 have also been collected.
Glasgow Museums offers schools workshops at the People’s Palace on the theme of Glasgow’s Hidden Legacies. This explores the connections between Glasgow and the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans and learners discover the hidden stories behind the family portrait of a tobacco merchant and a silver collar possibly worn by an enslaved servant. A secondary level learning resource can be found here.
The Transatlantic Slavery and the Merchant City Walking Tour Resource offers a self-led walking tour focusing on the city’s architecture and street names connected to the transatlantic slave trade and the merchants who made their wealth from it. Please contact email@example.com for details.
There is also a schools resource on our online Collections Navigator related to slavery. This contains a selection of museum objects that are connected with transatlantic chattel slavery and its legacies. They can form part of any lesson plan focusing on transatlantic slavery and serve as a starting point for classroom discussions and projects. It can be viewed here.
Networks and Partners
This work cannot be done in isolation. We have worked in partnership with a large number of agencies and communities to develop and share our work in this area. These include the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights, the International Slavery Museums in Liverpool, the British Council, the University of Glasgow, Colourful Heritage, Bangladesh Association Glasgow, UNESCO RILA, the Scottish Refugee Council and members of the South Asian, African, African-Caribbean and other diaspora communities.
Glasgow Museums was represented on the committee of the Empire, Slavery & Scotland’s Museums initiative led by Museums Galleries Scotland. This project was a response to decades of anti-racist activism and campaigning. It was sponsored by the Scottish Government and made recommendations on how Scotland’s involvement in empire, colonialism, and historic slavery can be addressed using museum collections and museum spaces. The reports and recommendations can be found here. We are also part of the UK-wide Transatlantic Slavery and Legacies in Museums Forum.
The projects and events mentioned here highlight only some of the anti-racism work that we are doing. There are many other displays and activities that have been undertaken and are in development. Check our what’s on guide and social media channels to keep up to date with our work in this area.