Decolonisation – Frequently Asked Questions


What is decolonisation?

Decolonisation is a difficult term to define. We see decolonisation as an approach to dismantling structures of inequality and discrimination.

These structures are based in our history, rooted in its colonial origins and current day barriers to participation.

Read our decolonisation blogs.

What objects in your collections relate to work on decolonisation?

You could say that a large proportion of our collections are linked to colonial activities in some way.

Either paid for directly or indirectly through the profits of colonising other countries and peoples, or as ‘trophies of Empire’ designed to promote Europe as the high point of civilisation across the globe.

This means they can be part of decolonising work looking at exploring these histories and their impacts today. We need to audit our collections to help link these histories with the most relevant objects.

Decolonising interpretation of these collections also means having stories and ideas being told from many different perspectives.

How did everything get into the collection?

We have been collecting for over 200 years and hold over two million items in our museums alone. All of the different types of collections have been brought together in a variety of ways.

Read our statement to find out more about the collection.

Are you going to send objects back to where they came from?

Repatriation of items to their countries of origin or originating communities is something we consider on a case by case basis. Requests can be made in writing to the Head of Culture at Bristol City Council. Find out more about the process and criteria for repatriation.

We have one historic Benin Bronze Head on display at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.

A conversation with different groups in Nigeria, including the Royal Court in Benin, and the UK has begun to determine the future of the head. To find out more about the significance of the material from Benin read our Uncomfortable Truths story and repatriation blog.

Were all the Chinese objects taken from the 'Forbidden City'?

The Chinese collections came from a range of sources. Many of the pieces were bought on the art market, particularly in London by British and European collectors. Some of the ceramics were sold by Chinese owners, others were dug up from archaeological sites, e.g. as railways were constructed in China in the late 19th century, and sold on. Some of the ceramics were made specifically for export to different parts of the world. Some of the Chinese glass in Bristol’s collection was probably made in palace glass workshops within The Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is a term used to describe the palace complex in Beijing that was home to Chinese Emperors and their households. There are a few pieces in the Chinese collection that were looted during the Opium wars between Britain and China.

What are the colonial connections to the world wildlife collections?

The world wildlife collections include animals and plants collected from colonised countries in many different ways.

For example, museum curators sourced specimens through ship captains working on Bristol’s trading routes. Individuals including naturalists, travellers and military donated specimens from trophy hunting, botanical gardens or their studies. Specimens were bought from animal traders or shows, or given by scientific expeditions, or originally sourced as live animals for Bristol or London Zoos.

As for other types of collection, we also hold items collected from Britain by collectors whose wealth came from colonial activity or from the traffic of enslaved African people. We also hold minerals, rocks and fossils with similar provenance to our world wildlife collections, though our rocks and fossils are primarily British.

Research into the provenance of these collections is in the early stages.

What information do you have about Black History?

We have several stories relating to Black History and collections at Bristol Archives (PDF).

In addition, our World Cultures and British Empire & Commonwealth collections hold about 4,000 objects from across Africa plus thousands of photographs and hundreds of films. We also have around 10,000 archaeological items from ancient Egypt.

Currently, there is not much material that specifically and directly addresses Black History on display in at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery but there are more stories at M Shed.

Our temporary exhibitions such as Empire Through the Lens and Fabric Africa have explored certain aspects but we need to address the lack of these stories as we look to develop these spaces.

How many Black artists/sitters are there in the Fine Art collection?

Currently, probably fewer than 1% of artists represented in our collections are Black. There are 11 Black British artists, 11 international artists, including South Asian and 11 sitters in modern artworks.

Over the last 20 years about 30 works by contemporary Asian artists have been acquired for the Eastern Art collection. This is alongside 45 works from North, West and South Africa, East and South Asia and the Middle East, and work by six Black British artists and two African American artists.

While a small percentage of the whole, we currently have work on display by two Black British artists, and two South Asian artists, as well as a Chinese artist and an Iranian artist.

We are actively commissioning a range of artists of colour for our contemporary collections.

Why is there nothing on the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery?

The Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans is discussed in a gallery at M Shed. However, the legacy of that period has touched many areas of the city including the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, in its collections and the building itself.

As a start, we have put a physical label in the building explaining this history. We will be looking at different ways to tell our visitors the story of the building and its collections in the coming months – like the Uncomfortable Truths Project.

What is the feedback section in the Transatlantic Slave Trade display at M Shed for?

M Shed is a place that encourages debate and discussion with its visitors.

The feedback section is not a place to debate the facts around the Transatlantic Traffic in Enslaved Africans but for people to express their personal experiences relating to the topic and its legacies.

Some of your labels seem out of date and don't tell the full story - when will they be changed?

Our focus in recent years has been on our temporary exhibition programme, so some of our main galleries haven’t had as much time put into updating them as we would have liked.

We are starting to look at changing labels and the objects we collect and display and telling different stories in different ways that reflect the diversity of Bristol and its history and hope to do more projects like this in the near future.

If you spot something that you think needs changing, please feel free to notify a member of staff so it can be reviewed by the decolonisation working group. You can also get in touch with us online.

What is the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection?

In 2012, the collections of the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) were transferred to the care of Bristol Archives and Bristol Museum.

The British Empire & Commonwealth Collection documents the links between Britain and countries in the British Empire from the late 19th century to recent times. The household belongings, souvenirs, photographs and papers of British people who lived and worked in the colonies give an insight into the workings of empire and the lives of the people who made it function. Find out more about what is in the collection.

You can explore archives and objects from people who lived and worked in the British Empire and Commonwealth by searching through the online catalogue.

Find out more about the history of the collection by viewing our blog posts, events and stories covering a wide range of material relating to the countries of the British Empire and the Commonwealth.

Are you going to send items in the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection back to their countries of origin?

Much of the material in the British Empire & Commonwealth Collection consists of photos and films taken by British people on their travels in the former empire.

Often these items form part of a wider collection of those people’s lives as they returned to the UK.

We are working hard to digitise this material so it can be accessed free of charge in its country of origin. Visit our online catalogue to find out more about the items we hold.

We also consider any requests for return of specific items and these can be made in writing to the Head of Culture at Bristol City Council. Find out more about the process and criteria for repatriation.