Decolonisation diary: Making progress during lockdown

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Ray Barnett, Head of Collections and Archives

Last October, we summarised our approach to ‘decolonisation’ and our commitment to facing up to our colonial heritage.

We then looked at the current situation regarding repatriation of museum artefacts to other communities in Africa and North America.

So where are we now in confronting these issues? The Decolonisation Working Group (which I currently chair) was set up to establish, relatively quickly, a means of charting a way forward for the organisation.

The internal workshops we held in 2020, facilitated by the Black South West Network, indicated several things we needed to work on. These included:

  • Addressing the lack of diversity in our workforce
  • Providing new labels for some of the artefacts on show and the stories they tell
  • Communicating what we are doing more clearly

Unfortunately, the pandemic closed the museums and affected our ability to move things forward as quickly as we hoped. Despite this we have been making progress. In particular we have agreed a set of aims.

Our aims

  1. Remove the barriers that our colonial heritage presents
  2. Recognise the trauma and suffering caused by our colonial heritage
  3. Represent, celebrate and co-produce with people of colour and other diaspora communities

We also prepared a series of statements on specific aspects of our work and a plan of action. This plan helps us to see which aims we have been addressing but also helps us identify the gaps in our approach.

As a result, visitors will start to see changes appearing as we reopen post-lockdown. We will make change happen quickly where we can. However, some of the work will take longer to achieve and involve assessing current funding priorities and/or seeking extra resources.

One of our projects is to review the content and approach of the labels in our galleries. This is one example where the scale of the challenge may be significant but we have a sub-team working on appropriate terminology.

Throughout this process, our intention has always been to be transparent and open to challenge. At first, our Decolonisation Working Group was formed solely from staff (with some input from our associated advisory groups). We recognise the need to expand this further and so we are hosting a stakeholders’ meeting in late June where attendees can comment and offer advice and guidance on how the decolonisation agenda should be pursued from now on.

The statue of Colston came to us last year after its retrieval from the city docks. Since then, we have been working with the We Are Bristol History Commission on an approach to displaying the statue at M Shed. This temporary display aims to start a conversation with Bristolians on how we move forward after the events of 7 June 2020. There will be an opportunity to contribute your thoughts and ideas – both in person at M Shed and online. I would encourage as many people as possible to take part. Your views will looked at by the We Are Bristol History Commission and will influence their recommendations.

Please look out for further additions and changes to our website as we move this agenda forward.

Image: Part of the Lips touched with blood exhibition by Sarah Waiswa at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Waiswa places her contemporary portraits of African people alongside manipulated portraits from the Bristol Empire & Commonwealth Collection to challenge colonialism, power and identity. 

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