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. 

4 comments on “Decolonisation diary: Making progress during lockdown

  1. Alex W

    Going back to the museum the other day (to see the excellent Grayson Perry Art Club show) I was shocked to see the huge Delhi colonial pageant painting near the entrance, with no comment or context.

    I then found an article on the issue in Bristol Cable, some punchy podcasts and a couple of museum blog posts including this one. Which are good on intent, but light on details and on urgency.

    When will museum visitors first see significant changes to labels or displays? What’s holding you back from starting to make changes now?


    1. Lauren MacCarthy Author

      Hi Alex, thanks for your comment. We’re glad you enjoyed Grayson’s Art Club. There is a label next to ‘The State Entry into Delhi’ which addresses the issues in the painting. Today we use the painting to focus debate on colonial rule and the legacy of Empire. There is also a QR code next to the painting where you can listen to a podcast made by a group of young people who unpick aspects of British rule in India. We’re currently conducting audits of the labels throughout the museum. Due to the sheer volume, this piece of work will take some time so we can ensure new interpretation is thoroughly researched, interesting and accessible. You can find out more about our work on decolonisation and stay up to date with progress at


  2. Douglas Hudson

    The vocal minority of woke folk should get a life —- what seems to be always overlooked is the context in which these historic events took place. The world, us, social life etc. was totally different 150/200 years ago than now. Yes, by todays values, appalling things happened, but we must not overlook the historic background of that period, or indeed the good things that many of the now “cancelled” performed on behalf of society.
    It seems that decolonisation/cancel culture/BLM etc. are symptoms of advanced economies, who do not generally have to worry about having a roof over their heads or where their next meal is coming from; as a result, they raise spurious issues as something to support, and lose perspective of the context in which these events and actions occurred. Many polls show that the vast majority of the U.K. population are bored by your views, and want no part of it.


  3. Laurie Jelphs

    Douglas Hudson well expressed. Context is key, and the cancel culture currently advocated by, as you say, an essentially privileged and small population is narrow-minded and dangerous. You can’t simply delete aspects of history simply because they are distasteful! That way lies madness. As Churchill said, “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (are we allowed to quote Churchill these days, or is that too offensive?). We currently run the very high risk of having the most important parts of history to learn from taken away from us. Crazy.


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