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Decolonisation Practice in Museums & Heritage: Leading by example.

The toppled statue of slave trader Edward Colston on public display in Bristol, CB Bristol Design 2021

SLS 360 associate, Magnus Copps, shares his views on decolonisation in the museums and heritage sector and responds to Nick Merriman's comments to bring decolonisation into sharper focus.

It’s a really welcome development to seen Nick Merriman’s focus on decolonisation carried through from his position as Director of The Horniman Museum and Gardens (a family favourite in SLS 360’s home territory of South East London). Merriman recently gave a lecture to The Institute of Conservation (ICON), introduced on the ICON website, and covered by The Guardian in an article by Esther Addley in Nov 2023. In it, he raised a number of points that I, as a researcher with an interest in heritage and material culture, and as someone who works on projects in the cultural sector that emphasise equity and social justice, am particularly pleased to see.

First of these is leadership. Making decolonisation the focus of a major institutional lecture in a context of his new appointment is, as the Guardian Article says, “a clear statement of intent” from Merriman. Leading decolonisation work in the heritage and museums sector is challenging as the practice has been heavily politicised within wider culture war narratives. As such, there can often be concerns at governance level about how to take such work forward without making organisations a target in the so-called culture wars, and front-line staff and researchers involved in this work are often subject to very harmful online or even in-person abuse. As such leadership from the front and from the top of organisational structures is really important.

Systemic change is impossible without strong leadership from the top, to foster cultures of inclusion, drive new ways of thinking, and push for a more equitable range of people to be involved, at governance, staff, and audience levels.

The second key point coming out of Merriman’s argument is the need to mainstream colonial histories and explore the diverse and complex ways they present in our heritage and our contemporary experience. Merriman follows Stuart Hall here in arguing that we can’t only look at indigenous objects held in Western museums or the accumulation of wealth in country houses if we want to fully understand how the colonial project shapes our lives in modern Britain.

The fact is, wealth accumulated from through Empire underpinned the development of many elements of our towns and cities that still exist today.

My own research explores how commodities extracted from the colonies through the labour of enslaved people shaped that most British of institutions, the pub. The fact is, wealth accumulated from through Empire underpinned the development of many elements of our towns and cities that still exist today (something recently explored by Historic England). I’m hopeful that Merriman’s emphasis here indicates that we may see both new research and, equally if not more important, new ways of interpreting and telling these stories so they form part of every visit, rather than only during seasonal interventions such as Black History Month.

I’m excited to see what comes out of Merriman’s tenure at English Heritage. Mainstreaming colonial histories is a key step in developing the heritage sector as a place where many different types of people and story can be shared alongside one another equitably. 21st century Britain is a diverse and politically fractured place, sorely in need of places for dialogue and things to come together around. With the right leadership and supports in place, I firmly believe history can be one of these.

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