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Talking Point
Black Lives Matter and museums

How should museums respond to the Black Lives Matter movement? How should they display contentious statues and artefacts relating to race? Are they even the right place for these objects? Magali Robathan speaks to the people grappling with these issues


Growing up in Bristol in the UK, I had long been aware of the contentious nature of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the town centre and the desire by so many for its removal.

However, when a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the summer of 2020 led to it being pulled down and thrown into the Docks, people all around the world started to take notice.

The statue is due to go on temporary display in Bristol's M Shed museum, and a new commission has been set up by the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees to consult with the public about what should happen to it in the long term. Meanwhile, across the globe, museum professionals have been grappling for years with the issue of if and how to display objects and statues that relate to the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.

Some say museums have a unique opportunity to openly and honestly discuss the brutal history these objects represent and the painful feelings they evoke, while others argue that exhibiting them could be hurtful for some visitors. Here we speak to some of the people engaged in these discussions.

Professor Tim Cole
Chair, We are Bristol History Commission, Bristol, UK
The statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into Bristol Harbour by BLM protesters / © cb Bristol Design 2020
What is the We Are Bristol History Commission?

The commission was set up by Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees in the summer of 2020 – the toppling of the Colston statue was the starting point, but not the sole destination. Rather the Commission is a chance to ask a broad set of questions about the history of the city and to explore these together as a community over the coming couple of years. It makes sense to begin with the question, ‘What have we remembered?’ (and its corollary – ‘what have we forgotten?’) But the Commission then wants to focus discussion around a series of other questions – Where have we come from? What have we made? How have we lived (and died)? What have we believed? What have we fought for (and fought over)?

What is the aim of the commission?

The aim is to have a period of reflection, exploration and deeper conversations about the history of the city and what's made us who we are, so that we can think about that in terms of what we memorialise and what kind of city we want to be.

We've chosen to focus on a number of questions and use them as a stimulus for conversation – these begin with a question prompted by the specific events of the toppling of the Colston statue that broadens out to ask about what and who we have remembered in the city and who we've forgotten. We'll use a range of media and will partner with different groups and schools to engage people and ask these questions.

What’s happening with the statue of Edward Colston?

The statue was fished out of the harbour and has been conserved by the M Shed museum in the state it was found [the damage to the statue and the graffiti sprayed onto it is being preserved as part of the story of the object]. It is now in the museum's conservation sheds.

We're currently working with the M Shed to put on a temporary display of the statue and the Black Lives Matter placards that were left around it – hopefully during the summer of 2021 – and to use that as a way to interact with people who visit the museum and engage the city in a conversation about the statue and its future.

The idea is that this is dialogue not monologue – it's a great opportunity to display the statue so people can come and see it and be engaged in a conversation about what should happen to it in the longer term.

"It shouldn't be a small elite that decides what happens to the statue"
Why is it important to engage the community in the decisions around what to do with the statue?

That statue was put up by a small elite of people in the city; it shouldn't be a small elite that decides what should happen to it now. It should be a democratic decision. The events of June 2020 represent an important historical moment for Bristol. The M Shed is a museum that tells the story of Bristol and its history, and this is an important part of that history. The museum wants to work with the commission and with the people of the city to decide how best to tell the story.

What will the display of the Colston statue look like?

We don't know yet; that's something we're discussing. We see it very much as an initial temporary display, with the aim of getting feedback about what the permanent home should be for what is a challenging object. The display will pose questions and I'll be very interested to hear the answers.

People may say the last place they want the statue is our museums or they might not. At this stage, nothing is decided.

The spirit of the history commission is to guide that process by posing questions and listening. It's important that as many voices as possible are heard.

We are Bristol History Commission chair Professor Tim Cole (left) with the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees / Photo: CB Bristol Design 2020
Bristol’s M Shed museum is hosting a temporary display of the statue of Colston / Photo: © Quintin Lake
Jean-Francois Manicom
Curator of Transatlantic Slavery & Legacies, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, UK
Manicom joined the International Slavery Museum in 2016
Has the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the conversations and decisions you've been having at the International Slavery Museum?

The movement and protests haven't really changed the conversations we're having, because we're deeply engaged in the legacy of slavery, and activism is in our very DNA – the museum was born from activism.

What the movement has done is to shine a light on the problem that our museum is speaking about. I do think the movement is changing things in British society, in highlighting the fact that slavery has a deep impact today.

What are your thoughts on the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol?

I wasn't really surprised to see the statue of Colston torn down in Bristol. People have been trying to discuss this issue with the city council for years, but there's a frustration that discussion and sitting around a table isn't enough to change things. Sometimes engagement has to be more radical. If people were still just discussing the Colston statue with the council, do you think people would be talking about this internationally? Colston and what he represented is now being discussed all around the world.

Yes, removing the statue and dragging it through the streets was brutal, but the statue itself represents something very brutal. The legacies of slavery are brutal. Some people argue that by removing the statue you are erasing history, but I don't agree with this. The statue wasn't speaking about the history of the transatlantic slave trade or the brutal acts carried out by the UK, it was glorifying a person who benefited from slavery.

What do you think should happen to the statue?

My suggestion would be to take time over this decision; to have an honest and deep discussion about this with the authorities, museum professionals, academics, artists, local people. We shouldn't automatically assume that a museum is the best place for it. Museums aren't the garbage dumps of society, where you put the things you don't want elsewhere.

"Museums aren't the garbage dumps of society"
What are the issues around exhibiting statues and artefacts relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

There's a distinction between items that relate directly to the history of the transatlantic slave trade – which are very difficult to find – and statues and portraits of enslaved owners. The issue of whether to include statues and paintings of enslaved owners is a tricky one and something we discuss in our museum – including them in a slavery museum could be seen as another way of honouring the enslaved owners, and it could be hurtful for people to see them exhibited. Whether it's correct or incorrect is a big discussion.

What lessons have you learned during your time at the International Slavery Museum?

The biggest lesson I've learned during my career – and my life – is that you should never sweep anything under the carpet. If you do, it will come back years, decades or even centuries later. Avoiding talking about things openly that happened in the past is a kind of sweet brutality. If you're hosting an exhibition about someone who was involved in the slave trade and you don't talk about the dark side of that person and what they did, that's a kind of brutality in itself.

A statue of the writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano at the museum / Photo © Christy Symington
The Black Achievers Wall at the International Slavery Museum / Photo © Dave Jones
Christopher Miller
Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, US
Christopher Miller
How should the museum sector respond to the Black Lives Matter protests and movement?

Change comes from a place of discomfort, hence we must remain in a place of discomfort about matters of race relations in order for any constructive change to occur. The protests are the product of outrage and frustration over a long-lasting system that continues to disenfranchise Black lives and disrupts genuine democracy and justice. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center plans to continue to be the convener of uncomfortable dialogue to foster and promote a spirit of justice and inclusive freedom.

Where do you stand on the wider discussion about the removal of statues and memorials relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

Even with the statues and memorials existing in public spaces, there’s never been any real educational communication about the violence and cruelty associated with these statues and memorials. Hence, their removal won’t eradicate the brutal past from our collective memory. Most of the statues and memorials were erected under a false narrative during a time when the US was at its lowest point in regards to race relations.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for museums in becoming the repositories for statues and artefacts relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

The biggest challenge is space – many museums do not have the capacity to exhibit these statues.

And what are the biggest opportunities?

The opportunities to correct and complete the false narratives through truthful interpretation.

What lessons have you learned that might be helpful for museums addressing these issues?

Foster a spirit of authentic truth and inspire the public we serve to be curious enough to seek the authentic truth. I want people to think critically about the past and how it has built our present.

Why is it so important to have museums dedicated to telling the story of the slave trade and its role in our history?

A good museum’s agenda is one that seeks truth and greater understanding about the social condition. The institution of enslavement is the most essential system in the development of the US. It framed our politics with the three fifths compromise, our economics with the production of cash crops such as cotton, and our social behaviour in regards to the social construct of race with the criminalisation of blackness with codes and laws. Race and slavery has been a continual factor in the development of the nation.

"We must remain in a place of discomfort about matters of race relations in order for any constructive change to occur"
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Photos courtesy of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Tayiana Chao and Olivia Windham-Stewart
Founders, Museum of British Colonialism
Chao (right) and Windham-Stewart are part of the team that founded the MBC /
What are the aims of the Museum of British Colonialism?

The Museum of British Colonialism was founded in January 2018 by a group of women in Kenya and the UK who recognised the need for a space to restore and make visible the suppressed, destroyed, or under-represented histories relating to British colonialism. We're entirely run by volunteers in both Kenya and the UK from a very mixed range of professions and backgrounds. We're a virtual museum but the work we do also has a physical presence, for example, the first project and exhibition we embarked upon aimed to uncover and digitally reconstruct detention camps from the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya.

Why is it so important to tell the story of British colonialism and what role should museums play in telling that story?

A triumphant and benevolent version of the story of British colonialism has been told for a very long time. This is far from the whole story and the lack of honest and self-reflecting analysis of this story has had real world consequences. It has also led to an inflated sense of moral high ground in Britain and other former coloniser countries making it very hard to challenge effectively.

Museums are guilty of portraying this skewed narrative of British colonialism, whilst at the same time having the power to correct it. We hope that other museums will follow our model and portray a fuller picture of the history which, no matter how controversial, needs to be told. This will include a difficult conversation that museums need to have about how some of the objects they display were acquired, and whether or not they should continue to be housed there.

How will 'visitors' access the stories that will come from the museum?

We're primarily an online, digital museum however we do hold exhibitions, film screenings, and other events both in Kenya, the UK and beyond. With the global pandemic all our activities have moved online but we hope to return to the ‘real world’ at some point in the future.

Being a digital museum allows us to have many more ‘visitors’ than if we were tied to a physical space and we attract an audience from all over the world. While we believe it's necessary to complement and realise our online work with physical events and interventions, we also believe in trying to take that work to people, rather than set a requirement that people come to us by establishing a central physical space. That’s a different way of thinking about doing museum work and it’s critical to our process.

What are your thoughts on museums becoming the repositories for statues, portraits and artefacts relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

Museums have long been considered repositories for statues and, more recently, that applies to those that have been toppled. But museums are not repositories for a nation’s unwanted junk, nor are they analgesic spaces where controversial histories can be rendered safe and printed on souvenirs. Museums should be spaces for learning, discovery, and the bringing together not only of objects, but also of people and stories.

The very idea of museums, from Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the genocide-minded skull-collectors of the 19th century, is rooted in colonialism. Today, too many museums are dusty relics of the Empire itself, from their vapid architecture to their blood-stained collections. Those that lament the pulling down of statues as ‘destroying history’ have a similarly outdated understanding of heritage.

To build a Museum of British Colonialism we need to discard all of this heritage and imagine a museum without walls, curators, collections or gift shops.

"Museums are not analgesic spaces where controversial histories can be rendered safe and printed on souvenirs"
Do you have any thoughts on what should happen to the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol?

The conversations being had around the toppling of the statue have already provided more discussion of the history than the statue itself ever did. Our advice would be to focus on this discourse.

The important thing is not what happens to the statue, it's what that means in relation to how people understand the history of their cities and communities and, ultimately, the country.

What have you learned through the experience of establishing the Museum of British Colonialism that others could learn from?

It's been an eye-opening experience. To engage with Britain’s colonial history, museums should be seen as spaces to explore what we don’t know, rather than present what we do know or what we want others to think.

They are spaces for social, emotional and psychological exploration and connection and they can have an explicitly social justice mission.

The work is often in the process, rather than simply the display of objects; it's in the coming together of communities; in the listening and the creation of work – they can be spaces of social and transitional justice, not just buildings that uphold and maintain certain immovable positions, narratives or objects.

Screening of Operation Legacy, a documentary co-produced by MBC about the Mau Mau Emergency
Members of the MBC team with Mau Mau fighters in 2018 (above and below).
All photos courtesy of the Museum of British Colonialism.
Changing the Narrative event in London
Dr Laura Van Broekhoven
Director, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
What impact has the Black Lives Matter movement had on the Pitt Rivers Museum?

For those who have heritage or roots in regions of the world that suffered the violence of Empire, the Pitt Rivers Museum can be a very difficult and hurtful place to be. Too often stories have been silenced and perspectives erased.

Because of its contentious history, its displays and the collections it stewards, over the past years the museum has been a site of protest for Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter activism. The museum understands how it has a responsibility to be held accountable concerning ongoing colonial complicities in its displays and collections and knows it has much work to do still.

You have been engaged in a decolonisation agenda at the museum for several years. What have you learned?

That decoloniality is an iterative process that requires much flexibility and willingness to learn and rethink. It's very important to remember that decoloniality did not start here or in our generation, it started with the long-standing resistance and resilience of Indigenous Peoples, who have been fighting coloniality for over 500 years and the struggles of the civil rights movements in many different parts of the world. Coloniality stretches out over many different aspects of life, and decoloniality therefore requires us to really deeply review some of the foundations of our thinking.

"For those who have roots in regions of the world that suffered the violence of Empire, the Pitt Rivers Museum can be a very hurtful place to be"
As part of an internal review you've pledged to remove human remains including shrunken heads from Ecuador and South America. Why did you make that decision?

The process ran over three years, since 2017, and included several aspects of the museum’s work. It was clear from the review that the introductory case and several specific case displays needed urgent consideration as did, more broadly, the displaying of human remains.

Part of the review led to the removal of 120 of the human remains from display. Input from communities was vital – for instance with regards to the tsantsas, the museum worked with Maria Patricia Ordoñez of the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito to work with contemporary Shuar delegates and set up a project that included their voices.

The review has far-reaching implications for the museum and has been the driver for projects: on re-labeling and for new collaborative approaches and changing the way we refer to cultural groups in our collection databases.

It has inspired an ethos of co-curation with community members and a programme of work that researches the composition of the collections and identifies which collections are contentious and were collected as part of processes of colonial violence.

Van Broekhoven has led an ethical review of the museum’s collections / Photo © John Cairns © Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum displays archaeological and ethnographic objects / Photo by Ian Wallman © Pitt Rivers Museum
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Talking Point
Black Lives Matter and museums

How should museums respond to the Black Lives Matter movement? How should they display contentious statues and artefacts relating to race? Are they even the right place for these objects? Magali Robathan speaks to the people grappling with these issues


Growing up in Bristol in the UK, I had long been aware of the contentious nature of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the town centre and the desire by so many for its removal.

However, when a Black Lives Matter demonstration in the summer of 2020 led to it being pulled down and thrown into the Docks, people all around the world started to take notice.

The statue is due to go on temporary display in Bristol's M Shed museum, and a new commission has been set up by the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees to consult with the public about what should happen to it in the long term. Meanwhile, across the globe, museum professionals have been grappling for years with the issue of if and how to display objects and statues that relate to the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism.

Some say museums have a unique opportunity to openly and honestly discuss the brutal history these objects represent and the painful feelings they evoke, while others argue that exhibiting them could be hurtful for some visitors. Here we speak to some of the people engaged in these discussions.

Professor Tim Cole
Chair, We are Bristol History Commission, Bristol, UK
The statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and thrown into Bristol Harbour by BLM protesters / © cb Bristol Design 2020
What is the We Are Bristol History Commission?

The commission was set up by Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees in the summer of 2020 – the toppling of the Colston statue was the starting point, but not the sole destination. Rather the Commission is a chance to ask a broad set of questions about the history of the city and to explore these together as a community over the coming couple of years. It makes sense to begin with the question, ‘What have we remembered?’ (and its corollary – ‘what have we forgotten?’) But the Commission then wants to focus discussion around a series of other questions – Where have we come from? What have we made? How have we lived (and died)? What have we believed? What have we fought for (and fought over)?

What is the aim of the commission?

The aim is to have a period of reflection, exploration and deeper conversations about the history of the city and what's made us who we are, so that we can think about that in terms of what we memorialise and what kind of city we want to be.

We've chosen to focus on a number of questions and use them as a stimulus for conversation – these begin with a question prompted by the specific events of the toppling of the Colston statue that broadens out to ask about what and who we have remembered in the city and who we've forgotten. We'll use a range of media and will partner with different groups and schools to engage people and ask these questions.

What’s happening with the statue of Edward Colston?

The statue was fished out of the harbour and has been conserved by the M Shed museum in the state it was found [the damage to the statue and the graffiti sprayed onto it is being preserved as part of the story of the object]. It is now in the museum's conservation sheds.

We're currently working with the M Shed to put on a temporary display of the statue and the Black Lives Matter placards that were left around it – hopefully during the summer of 2021 – and to use that as a way to interact with people who visit the museum and engage the city in a conversation about the statue and its future.

The idea is that this is dialogue not monologue – it's a great opportunity to display the statue so people can come and see it and be engaged in a conversation about what should happen to it in the longer term.

"It shouldn't be a small elite that decides what happens to the statue"
Why is it important to engage the community in the decisions around what to do with the statue?

That statue was put up by a small elite of people in the city; it shouldn't be a small elite that decides what should happen to it now. It should be a democratic decision. The events of June 2020 represent an important historical moment for Bristol. The M Shed is a museum that tells the story of Bristol and its history, and this is an important part of that history. The museum wants to work with the commission and with the people of the city to decide how best to tell the story.

What will the display of the Colston statue look like?

We don't know yet; that's something we're discussing. We see it very much as an initial temporary display, with the aim of getting feedback about what the permanent home should be for what is a challenging object. The display will pose questions and I'll be very interested to hear the answers.

People may say the last place they want the statue is our museums or they might not. At this stage, nothing is decided.

The spirit of the history commission is to guide that process by posing questions and listening. It's important that as many voices as possible are heard.

We are Bristol History Commission chair Professor Tim Cole (left) with the Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees / Photo: CB Bristol Design 2020
Bristol’s M Shed museum is hosting a temporary display of the statue of Colston / Photo: © Quintin Lake
Jean-Francois Manicom
Curator of Transatlantic Slavery & Legacies, International Slavery Museum, Liverpool, UK
Manicom joined the International Slavery Museum in 2016
Has the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the conversations and decisions you've been having at the International Slavery Museum?

The movement and protests haven't really changed the conversations we're having, because we're deeply engaged in the legacy of slavery, and activism is in our very DNA – the museum was born from activism.

What the movement has done is to shine a light on the problem that our museum is speaking about. I do think the movement is changing things in British society, in highlighting the fact that slavery has a deep impact today.

What are your thoughts on the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol?

I wasn't really surprised to see the statue of Colston torn down in Bristol. People have been trying to discuss this issue with the city council for years, but there's a frustration that discussion and sitting around a table isn't enough to change things. Sometimes engagement has to be more radical. If people were still just discussing the Colston statue with the council, do you think people would be talking about this internationally? Colston and what he represented is now being discussed all around the world.

Yes, removing the statue and dragging it through the streets was brutal, but the statue itself represents something very brutal. The legacies of slavery are brutal. Some people argue that by removing the statue you are erasing history, but I don't agree with this. The statue wasn't speaking about the history of the transatlantic slave trade or the brutal acts carried out by the UK, it was glorifying a person who benefited from slavery.

What do you think should happen to the statue?

My suggestion would be to take time over this decision; to have an honest and deep discussion about this with the authorities, museum professionals, academics, artists, local people. We shouldn't automatically assume that a museum is the best place for it. Museums aren't the garbage dumps of society, where you put the things you don't want elsewhere.

"Museums aren't the garbage dumps of society"
What are the issues around exhibiting statues and artefacts relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

There's a distinction between items that relate directly to the history of the transatlantic slave trade – which are very difficult to find – and statues and portraits of enslaved owners. The issue of whether to include statues and paintings of enslaved owners is a tricky one and something we discuss in our museum – including them in a slavery museum could be seen as another way of honouring the enslaved owners, and it could be hurtful for people to see them exhibited. Whether it's correct or incorrect is a big discussion.

What lessons have you learned during your time at the International Slavery Museum?

The biggest lesson I've learned during my career – and my life – is that you should never sweep anything under the carpet. If you do, it will come back years, decades or even centuries later. Avoiding talking about things openly that happened in the past is a kind of sweet brutality. If you're hosting an exhibition about someone who was involved in the slave trade and you don't talk about the dark side of that person and what they did, that's a kind of brutality in itself.

A statue of the writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano at the museum / Photo © Christy Symington
The Black Achievers Wall at the International Slavery Museum / Photo © Dave Jones
Christopher Miller
Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, US
Christopher Miller
How should the museum sector respond to the Black Lives Matter protests and movement?

Change comes from a place of discomfort, hence we must remain in a place of discomfort about matters of race relations in order for any constructive change to occur. The protests are the product of outrage and frustration over a long-lasting system that continues to disenfranchise Black lives and disrupts genuine democracy and justice. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center plans to continue to be the convener of uncomfortable dialogue to foster and promote a spirit of justice and inclusive freedom.

Where do you stand on the wider discussion about the removal of statues and memorials relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

Even with the statues and memorials existing in public spaces, there’s never been any real educational communication about the violence and cruelty associated with these statues and memorials. Hence, their removal won’t eradicate the brutal past from our collective memory. Most of the statues and memorials were erected under a false narrative during a time when the US was at its lowest point in regards to race relations.

What do you see as the biggest challenges for museums in becoming the repositories for statues and artefacts relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

The biggest challenge is space – many museums do not have the capacity to exhibit these statues.

And what are the biggest opportunities?

The opportunities to correct and complete the false narratives through truthful interpretation.

What lessons have you learned that might be helpful for museums addressing these issues?

Foster a spirit of authentic truth and inspire the public we serve to be curious enough to seek the authentic truth. I want people to think critically about the past and how it has built our present.

Why is it so important to have museums dedicated to telling the story of the slave trade and its role in our history?

A good museum’s agenda is one that seeks truth and greater understanding about the social condition. The institution of enslavement is the most essential system in the development of the US. It framed our politics with the three fifths compromise, our economics with the production of cash crops such as cotton, and our social behaviour in regards to the social construct of race with the criminalisation of blackness with codes and laws. Race and slavery has been a continual factor in the development of the nation.

"We must remain in a place of discomfort about matters of race relations in order for any constructive change to occur"
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Photos courtesy of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Tayiana Chao and Olivia Windham-Stewart
Founders, Museum of British Colonialism
Chao (right) and Windham-Stewart are part of the team that founded the MBC /
What are the aims of the Museum of British Colonialism?

The Museum of British Colonialism was founded in January 2018 by a group of women in Kenya and the UK who recognised the need for a space to restore and make visible the suppressed, destroyed, or under-represented histories relating to British colonialism. We're entirely run by volunteers in both Kenya and the UK from a very mixed range of professions and backgrounds. We're a virtual museum but the work we do also has a physical presence, for example, the first project and exhibition we embarked upon aimed to uncover and digitally reconstruct detention camps from the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya.

Why is it so important to tell the story of British colonialism and what role should museums play in telling that story?

A triumphant and benevolent version of the story of British colonialism has been told for a very long time. This is far from the whole story and the lack of honest and self-reflecting analysis of this story has had real world consequences. It has also led to an inflated sense of moral high ground in Britain and other former coloniser countries making it very hard to challenge effectively.

Museums are guilty of portraying this skewed narrative of British colonialism, whilst at the same time having the power to correct it. We hope that other museums will follow our model and portray a fuller picture of the history which, no matter how controversial, needs to be told. This will include a difficult conversation that museums need to have about how some of the objects they display were acquired, and whether or not they should continue to be housed there.

How will 'visitors' access the stories that will come from the museum?

We're primarily an online, digital museum however we do hold exhibitions, film screenings, and other events both in Kenya, the UK and beyond. With the global pandemic all our activities have moved online but we hope to return to the ‘real world’ at some point in the future.

Being a digital museum allows us to have many more ‘visitors’ than if we were tied to a physical space and we attract an audience from all over the world. While we believe it's necessary to complement and realise our online work with physical events and interventions, we also believe in trying to take that work to people, rather than set a requirement that people come to us by establishing a central physical space. That’s a different way of thinking about doing museum work and it’s critical to our process.

What are your thoughts on museums becoming the repositories for statues, portraits and artefacts relating to colonialism and the slave trade?

Museums have long been considered repositories for statues and, more recently, that applies to those that have been toppled. But museums are not repositories for a nation’s unwanted junk, nor are they analgesic spaces where controversial histories can be rendered safe and printed on souvenirs. Museums should be spaces for learning, discovery, and the bringing together not only of objects, but also of people and stories.

The very idea of museums, from Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the genocide-minded skull-collectors of the 19th century, is rooted in colonialism. Today, too many museums are dusty relics of the Empire itself, from their vapid architecture to their blood-stained collections. Those that lament the pulling down of statues as ‘destroying history’ have a similarly outdated understanding of heritage.

To build a Museum of British Colonialism we need to discard all of this heritage and imagine a museum without walls, curators, collections or gift shops.

"Museums are not analgesic spaces where controversial histories can be rendered safe and printed on souvenirs"
Do you have any thoughts on what should happen to the toppled statue of Edward Colston in Bristol?

The conversations being had around the toppling of the statue have already provided more discussion of the history than the statue itself ever did. Our advice would be to focus on this discourse.

The important thing is not what happens to the statue, it's what that means in relation to how people understand the history of their cities and communities and, ultimately, the country.

What have you learned through the experience of establishing the Museum of British Colonialism that others could learn from?

It's been an eye-opening experience. To engage with Britain’s colonial history, museums should be seen as spaces to explore what we don’t know, rather than present what we do know or what we want others to think.

They are spaces for social, emotional and psychological exploration and connection and they can have an explicitly social justice mission.

The work is often in the process, rather than simply the display of objects; it's in the coming together of communities; in the listening and the creation of work – they can be spaces of social and transitional justice, not just buildings that uphold and maintain certain immovable positions, narratives or objects.

Screening of Operation Legacy, a documentary co-produced by MBC about the Mau Mau Emergency
Members of the MBC team with Mau Mau fighters in 2018 (above and below).
All photos courtesy of the Museum of British Colonialism.
Changing the Narrative event in London
Dr Laura Van Broekhoven
Director, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, UK
What impact has the Black Lives Matter movement had on the Pitt Rivers Museum?

For those who have heritage or roots in regions of the world that suffered the violence of Empire, the Pitt Rivers Museum can be a very difficult and hurtful place to be. Too often stories have been silenced and perspectives erased.

Because of its contentious history, its displays and the collections it stewards, over the past years the museum has been a site of protest for Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter activism. The museum understands how it has a responsibility to be held accountable concerning ongoing colonial complicities in its displays and collections and knows it has much work to do still.

You have been engaged in a decolonisation agenda at the museum for several years. What have you learned?

That decoloniality is an iterative process that requires much flexibility and willingness to learn and rethink. It's very important to remember that decoloniality did not start here or in our generation, it started with the long-standing resistance and resilience of Indigenous Peoples, who have been fighting coloniality for over 500 years and the struggles of the civil rights movements in many different parts of the world. Coloniality stretches out over many different aspects of life, and decoloniality therefore requires us to really deeply review some of the foundations of our thinking.

"For those who have roots in regions of the world that suffered the violence of Empire, the Pitt Rivers Museum can be a very hurtful place to be"
As part of an internal review you've pledged to remove human remains including shrunken heads from Ecuador and South America. Why did you make that decision?

The process ran over three years, since 2017, and included several aspects of the museum’s work. It was clear from the review that the introductory case and several specific case displays needed urgent consideration as did, more broadly, the displaying of human remains.

Part of the review led to the removal of 120 of the human remains from display. Input from communities was vital – for instance with regards to the tsantsas, the museum worked with Maria Patricia Ordoñez of the Universidad de San Francisco in Quito to work with contemporary Shuar delegates and set up a project that included their voices.

The review has far-reaching implications for the museum and has been the driver for projects: on re-labeling and for new collaborative approaches and changing the way we refer to cultural groups in our collection databases.

It has inspired an ethos of co-curation with community members and a programme of work that researches the composition of the collections and identifies which collections are contentious and were collected as part of processes of colonial violence.

Van Broekhoven has led an ethical review of the museum’s collections / Photo © John Cairns © Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum displays archaeological and ethnographic objects / Photo by Ian Wallman © Pitt Rivers Museum
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