Museums debate risks sugar-coating Scotland's Black History

Scotland has seen a sudden upsurge in political support for a museum exploring Black History. CRER's Senior Policy Officer, Carol Young, unpicks the problems with the debate on this so far.

Wednesday’s Scottish Parliament debate on a motion put forward by Stuart McMillan MSP set out the case for a new Museum for Human Rights in Greenock’s historic sugar sheds. This is the latest in a string of public discussions and speculation on how best Scotland can reflect the history of empire, colonialism, slavery and migration within its museums.

As pointed out in a briefing for MSPs ahead of the debate, CRER has considerable credentials in working on this and related issues over many years. The briefing, which was sent to MSPs who had previously indicated support for a ‘museum of

slavery’ following a similar motion from Patrick Harvie MSP in June, gave a quick overview of our interest in this. We covered our work to set up Scotland’s Black History Month in 2001, which we still co-ordinate on a shoestring budget provided by Glasgow City Council; the Black History Walking Tours we’ve run since 2002; the It Wisnae Us project on Glasgow’s history with the Transatlantic slave trade (culminating in the much-lauded book of the same name by Dr. Stephen Mullen); and our role in supporting numerous museums and heritage institutions across the country to look at curation and decolonisation.

Last but not least, we brought up the work we’ve been doing for a few years now in partnership with Glasgow City Council as co-chairs of a committee campaigning to establish a Scottish museum of empire, colonialism, slavery and migration. This committee has been working on a fact-finding phase, including visits to museums exploring Black History across the UK and USA. Its work has secured support and expertise from colleagues at Brown University and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (part of the Smithsonian Institute), Dr. Richard Benjamin from the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, Professor Sir Geoff Palmer (a patron of our campaign) and many others. From the outset, this committee has been clear that any further development towards establishing a museum needs to have the voices of Black and minority ethnic communities at its heart.

Much of the committee’s work to date was carried forward by CRER’s Communities and Campaigns Officer, Zandra Yeaman, who just this week has been seconded to the Hunterian to work on its Curating Discomfort project (mentioned during Wednesday’s debate by Christina McKelvie MSP, Minister for Older People and Equalities).

We’ve been pleased to see the huge upturn in interest in a dedicated museum space, and to have not one but two parliamentary motions on the issue in the space of a few months would have been unthinkable this time last year. These motions have resulted in two parallel bursts of activity, one in Inverclyde (the subject of Wednesday’s debate) and one at Scottish Government level (following the earlier motion by Patrick Harvie). The press has been awash with commentators, political or otherwise, offering their views. It seems like everyone now wants to be heard on this matter.

But in the midst of the clamour to be heard, our fear is that people in power have forgotten how to listen.

We were understandably intrigued to see what contributions MSPs would bring to Wednesday’s debate on Stuart McMillan’s motion:

“That the Parliament notes its agreement to motion S5M-22004 (as amended) on 10 June 2020 (Official Report, c.133), which agreed that the Scottish Government would work to create a national museum to highlight Scotland’s role in the slave trade and colonialism; further notes that there are various locations across Scotland whose history in the slave trade would merit consideration for such a facility; highlights the link that Inverclyde has with the triangular trade and the sugar, tobacco and cotton industries and the financial wealth that was generated for merchants; notes that Inverclyde was reported to be the world leader in the sugar trade, which ensured that vast wealth was created both during and following the abolition of the slave trade in 1833; highlights the building of the historic sugar warehouses at the James Watt Dock in Greenock, which were opened in 1886, and notes the view that, with its existing transport and historical links, in addition to the educational and economic opportunities that could be created for future generations, Inverclyde should be the location for such a museum.”

Any and all recognition of the need for a national museum exploring Scotland’s history in regard to empire, colonialism, slavery and migration is to be welcomed. Nevertheless, at CRER, we couldn’t help but feel uneasy with the finer details of the debate.

Part history lecture, part plea for economic development in Inverclyde, the introduction to the motion from Stuart McMillan was impassioned. But it presented his specific vision for a Museum of Human Rights as essentially a done deal. Several MSPs agreed with him, approving highly of his rationale for placing the museum at James Watt Dock.

He set out progress so far on his mission to bring the museum to his constituency. Sir Geoff Palmer and David Hayman have been spoken to. Much press interest was garnered (this didn’t escape our attention at CRER). Best of all, a short-life working group has been convened, comprising Ronnie Cowan MP (principal of West College Scotland), Scottish Enterprise, the Inverclyde Chamber of Commerce; Creative Inverclyde, the Clyde Atlantic trust, television presenter Jean Johansson and singer-songwriter Matthew Hickman. The leader of Inverclyde Council was also invited, and hopefully, may be able to take this up.

As co-chairs of a long-running committee campaigning for a national museum comprised of Black and minority ethnic people with years of activism on related issues behind them, alongside allies with history and heritage expertise, we were somewhat surprised to hear that work to establish a national museum is now to be led by a group of people from Inverclyde, none of whom appear (to the best of our knowledge) to have particular expertise in either race equality or history and heritage.

The two individual members from a BME background provide welcome relief from the relentless whiteness of the organisations involved (although whether they have enough influence within the group to stop its work from centring on a white perspective remains to be seen). However, more to the point, there are literally dozens of people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds in Scotland who have relevant experience and have already been campaigning on this issue for years. Many of them are on the committee CRER co-chairs. Where are their voices in this?

It’s worth noting that the issue of a museum was raised briefly on the TV programme Debate Scotland on Wednesday night, as part of a wider discussion on Black History and education. Audience member Cynthia Gentle asked how Black and minority ethnic people would be involved by Scottish Government in its work on Black History. Tellingly, she didn’t receive a reply.

But back to the debate - Stuart McMillan MSP had also spoken with Lucy Casot of Museums Galleries Scotland, which is taking forward the Scottish Government’s work on this. The Heritage Lottery Fund has also been engaged and has agreed to speak virtually to the group, with “…an agreed purpose to bring this facility to Inverclyde.”

MSPs during the debate expressed varying opinions on whether Inverclyde is the right location for a museum. However, crucially, none made an argument for this being decided through due process, based on both robust evidence and involvement. On a practical and an ideological level, how a museum is conceived and developed is too important to plan on the back of a napkin. We need meaningful involvement of Black and minority ethnic communities and clear evidence on the practical, social, historical and economic implications.

The need for this information is exactly the reason why the committee we co-chair asked Scottish Government, in June, to engage with us about the possibility of funding a scoping study. The response, provided by Nicola Sturgeon in July, didn’t address this request directly. Instead, it gave assurances of partnership working and the anticipation that CRER and Glasgow City Council (with no acknowledgement of the committee and its wider membership) would be ‘part of that conversation’.

To her credit, Christina McKelvie MSP, Minister for Older People and Equalities, acknowledged our work in some detail during the debate and offered her own reassurance that CRER would be involved in the Scottish Government’s work on this going forward. Without her intervention, any notion that work is already going on would have been entirely absent from the debate.

As previously mentioned, the Scottish Government’s initiative is being led by Museums Galleries Scotland, and will involve an independent expert review group. But at what point in this process can BME stakeholders hope to be involved, when discussions are already going on in two separate arenas without so much as an email to the existing museum committee?

The trajectory of these two strands, particularly the Inverclyde project, paints a scene of power and privilege standing above integrity and purpose. The histories of empire, colonialism, slavery and migration that a museum needs to illuminate are Scotland’s histories. But having chosen to forget them so far, through what many term ‘cultural amnesia’, they are not for white Scots to simply snatch back.

Fundamentally, creating a museum is not an end point to illuminating these histories. It’s part of a process of re-learning, and cannot replicate the status quo. This should be about challenging culture, power, privilege, practises and attitudes.

It’s also important to reiterate that, despite the hard work we’ve invested in this over several years, CRER and our colleagues on the committee aren’t the only players in this game. Many other Black and minority ethnic activists and organisations have a direct interest. Black and minority ethnic communities and individuals have a direct interest.

At what stage will their voices be heard - and crucially, who’s willing to listen?