Nine months have passed since the murder of George Floyd ignited the Black Lives Matter movement, causing many to pause, reflect and commit to change.
BLM didn’t make demands – protesters were simply saying, this is a catastrophic problem but not of our making, we’ve done nothing wrong. What are YOU going to do about it?
The global response was immediate and unprecedented, with organisations, private individuals and corporations promising change.
Museums found themselves facing hard questions: had they been founded or funded by slave owners? Were collections gathered during colonial plundering? Were they displaying human remains?
These soul searchings have led to initiatives to right wrongs and on page 34 we investigate actions being taken by museums around the world in relation to BLM and hear their views about the challenges ahead.
Many BLM protests focused on the statues of controversial figures, with repeated calls made for them to be destroyed or ‘put in a museum’.
This has raised questions about how we deal with objects associated with slavery and racism and the role museums will play.
Some governments have passed legislation to protect historic monuments, while acknowledging their past, with an instruction to ‘retain and explain’, rather than destroy, in all but the most ‘exceptional circumstances.’
However, many museums are baulking at the idea of becoming ‘dumping grounds’ for artefacts associated with racism and prejudice.
A new review from Historic England has revealed the extent of this challenge in just one country. Commissioned in 2020 and published in February 2021, The Transatlantic Slave Economy and England’s Built Environment traces hundreds of associations between the slave trade and monuments, people and buildings, to guide the way history is honestly recorded and interpreted.
Museums have a vital role to play in this process of reparative history and we must find a balance between removing artefacts that cause distress and whitewashing what has gone before.
The way histories are retold will also enable museums to be responsive to the needs of diverse audiences – in some cases, telling their stories for the first time – as professionals in the museums sector work to address this complex challenge.