Connected Curriculum

Traces of Empire in Scotland’s Museums

The distinct histories of the devolved nations of the United Kingdom have undergirded their relationships with the broader British imperial project. The number of Scots who emigrated to overseas colonies or took on employment in the diverse trades and professions created or facilitated by empire was, for example, notably high in relation to the population size of the country. As Andrew Thompson has suggested, “Of all the peoples of the United Kingdom, it is the Scots’ contribution to the British Empire that stands out as disproportionate. They were the first peoples of the British Isles to take on an imperial mentality, and possibly the longest to sustain one.” The legacy of these separate but interconnected national histories has left divergent traces in its wake: traces which are now being revisited and reconsidered in a vast variety of formats by academics and creative practitioners as well as by larger institutions and national organisations.

My own work in Scotland has zoned in on the material traces of the legacies that empire left behind. In particular, I explore the stories of the objects still present in museum displays and stores in different parts of the country. What might these objects tell of the ways in which empire affected not only national macro-structures, but also influenced the way individual people and communities lived, the goods they manufactured, consumed and bought, and the cultural environment in which they lived? How can we use these objects to engage different audiences with these aspects of history – not only museum visitors, but also schools, local community groups, and the wider public?

The first projects I was involved with in Scotland between 2016 and 2019 experimented with ways to promote meaningful engagement with imperial histories in museums, such as video games, taste workshops, sensory packs, smell walks and recipe cards. These were interdisciplinary initiatives run by academics in game design (Robin Sloan), cultural geography (Marisa Wilson) and myself in transnational cultural studies, in collaboration with the Watt Institution and a number of local schools and community groups. Our work centred on the port town of Greenock, on the south side of the River Clyde. The long history of sugar refining in the town meant that the sensory aspects of this history were especially evocative and allowed community members to access and share rich memories of the smells and tastes associated with the historic trades and industry in the local area.

‘(The Conjurer) Hindsight is a luxury you cannot afford’, Set of three copper plate etchings created by artist Alberta Whittle as part of a residency at University of St Andrews. Image courtesy of University of St Andrews, ID HC2022.2 (1).

In 2018 I set up a network with Michael Morris (University of Dundee) to explore the interconnections between different museums that tell the story of Scotland’s commodity trades over the long 19th century: the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, New Lanark World Heritage Site, Verdant Works in Dundee, V&A Dundee and the Watt Institution in Greenock.  The ‘Transnational Scotland’ project focused on objects of imperial trade such as sugar, jute, cotton and herring, and how each object had worked to facilitate the trade potential of Scotland on the global stage. Our work at V&A Dundee led to changes being made to object labels and other interpretive materials, new commissions, and events that all formed part of a wider decolonising initiative that is still ongoing today at the museum.

I’ve felt incredibly privileged to be part of the conversations around the legacies and after-effects of empire in Scotland. In many ways, I think Scotland, and Scotland’s cultural heritage sector in particular, has been leading the way in these conversations in the UK. A lot of the positive action we see today is built on existing networks and activism by organisations and individuals that spans decades. CRER (Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights), for example, has coordinated Black History Month events in Scotland since 2001. The 200-year anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2007 laid the foundations for a lot of the academic and engagement work that followed afterward; as did events, such as the Empire Cafe initiative, around the Commonwealth Games that were held in Glasgow in 2014.  In Edinburgh, the work of Lisa Williams at the Edinburgh Caribbean Association has been pioneering, especially through her Black history walking tours, which she has run since 2018.

Building on these existing networks and decades-long activism, in 2019, the University of Glasgow published a landmark report authored by Steven Mullen which detailed the ways in which the institution had profited from slavery and committed to a program of reparations in collaboration with the University of the West Indies through a £20 million investment. Mullen’s report for the University of Glasgow was followed in 2022 by a second report authored for Glasgow City Council. Edinburgh Council have since produced their own slavery and colonialism legacy review.

‘Kithship Transmissions (Silver)’, Set of three copper plate etchings created by artist Alberta Whittle as part of a residency at University of St Andrews. Image courtesy of University of St Andrews, ID HC2022.2 (2).

The University of Aberdeen made headlines in 2021 when it became the first UK institution to agree to return its looted Benin bronze. Museums Galleries Scotland has run a national consultation on empire and slavery in Scotland museums, led by an independent steering group and commissioned by the Scottish Government, which recently laid out a thorough series of recommendations for the sector. National Museums Scotland has also undertaken a number of projects around colonial histories and legacies in its collections. The David Livingstone Birthplace museum has recently undergone a complete redesign, now highlighting the contributions of Livingstone’s African collaborators and focusing its learning activities on the theme of global citizenship.

In 2022 I was proud to share the results of some of my own work in the field through two very different outputs. The first was the publication of Scotland’s Transnational Heritage: Legacies of Empire and Slavery, a co-edited volume which was quite a hybrid experiment, including chapters on innovative storytelling methods, practical case studies from museums, as well as fresh transnational perspectives on elements of Scottish history.

The second was an exhibition called ‘Recollecting Empire’ which was held at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews. Focusing on the University of St Andrews’ museum collections, the exhibition explored how we can reinterpret colonial presences in museum and archive collections through improved historical contextualisation and juxtaposition with contemporary art and making practices. We worked with a variety of stakeholders including the University BAME Network and student societies, community groups including migrant and secondary school participants, an Advisory Board and artist practitioners, including Alberta Whittle, who produced a series of newly commissioned prints for the exhibition.

‘Kithship Transmissions (Copper)’, Set of three copper plate etchings created by artist Alberta Whittle as part of a residency at University of St Andrews. Image courtesy of University of St Andrews, ID HC2022.2 (3).

There is nothing simple about undertaking this sort of work. Resistances can be found at every level, from the individual to the institutional, and the stakes are high. Empire and imperial imaginings underpinned the way each part of Britain saw itself for centuries – some would argue that the after-effects of those imaginings still persist to influence our various national politics and cultures. The rich material depositories in our museums and heritage organisations offer a way to rethink the local, vernacular specificities of these legacies and remodel contemporary responses to them. Doing so is one step on a longer journey towards imagining and enacting more equitable futures on a national and even a transnational level.

Just one example of these steps can be seen in the story of the House of Ni’isjoohl’s Memorial Pole. In 2022, the Nisga’a Nation made an historic request for the rematriation of this pole, which has been on display in Edinburgh since it was stolen from the community by anthropologist Marius Barbeau in 1929 and sold on to National Museums Scotland. The rematriation request was granted, and the pole is the first of its kind to be returned to an originating country from a UK museum. The significance of this move stands as testament to decades of activism, both in Scotland and in the countries it was connected to through empire. It is an example of how committing to open, equal cultural dialogue can lead to remarkable instances of reconciliation.

The publication of this article has been supported in part by the AHRC-funded Connected Curriculum Network, which encourages dialogue and connection between educators, researchers and heritage professionals across the UK working to de-centre, diversify and decolonise British history education. 

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