Facing an imperial past: The Hunterian Museum begins to decolonise their collections

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Credit: Thomas Ona Odulate, Model canoe with six figures ,20th century, Nigeria. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow.

Rachel Stamford
News Editor

As Western museums are coming to terms with their colonial pasts, the Hunterian Museum is making an effort to find the true history behind their African artifacts and make the museum more inclusive.

Following Black History Month, Scotland’s oldest public museum is undergoing the process of decolonising its collections and confronting its links with the slave trade.

The Hunterian Museum was founded in 1807 by Glaswegian anatomist and physician Dr William Hunter.For over 200 years the museum has collected across multiple disciplines for research and learning, and now encompasses over 1.5m objects, according to the Kelvin Hall’s official website.

However, not all of the collections originated from the United Kingdom. The museum currently displays 350 pieces of art and 752 archaeology artefacts that originated in Africa.

Now the museum wants to know how it came in possession of the African collections, and what it can do to decolonise the way its art is presented to visitors.

At a panel on 31 October hosted by the Hunterian Museum, Dr Peggy Brunache, a lecturer in the history of Atlantic slavery at the University of Glasgow, said that the Hunterian’s artistic and scientific interpretations of collections are fixed in imperial thinking.

“The Hunterian has traditionally been a global power that reflects and represents Western ideologies, particularly those of white colonizers,” Dr Brunache said.

Many people across the United Kingdom and the United States have been demanding intellectual institutions acknowledge their roots in colonisation. Museums and universities across these countries have benefitted from donated art and scientific instruments that were stolen from countries during British imperialism and Westward expansion.

In August, the University of Glasgow said it would pay £20m in reparations for a joint centre on development research with the University of the West Indies after it discovered it had benefited financially from Scottish slave traders in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Hunterian has also benefitted from money derived from the slave trade. Hunterian Museum Head of Collections and Curatorial Dr Giovanna Vitelli said that her colleague, Dr Lola Sanchez-Jáuregui, had conducted research on some of the university’s astronomical instruments. In the research, she found that a reflecting telescope came from Alexander MacFarlane, a merchant and slave owner in Jamaica.

Dr. Vitelli said that objects with links to the slave trade are often not accompanied with a museum label reflecting that side of its history, or how the slave owners that donated the object financially benefitted from slavery.

Additionally, researching how these objects came to the museum may not be as easy as looking through donation books and archives.

“Who are the invisible people who indirectly and directly contributed to the knowledge and information created around them that benefitted the scientists and MacFarlanes of this world? They’re going to be found by people not written in these records,” Dr Vitelli said.

Dr Lola Sanchez-Jáuregui’s research suggests that finding the objects’ origins may lie in linking descendent communities across colonial landscapes, oral narratives from those descendants and archaeology.

In short, decolonising the museum to accurately reflect these African collections’ true histories will not be a fast process.

Curator for Archaeology and World Cultures Andy Mills, who has worked at the Hunterian for two months, said he is taking steps to decolonise the museum’s collections and set new rules involving what the museum is not allowed to benefit from anymore.

One step already taken is that the museum is no longer conducting research on human remains that were most likely a result of grave robbing across Africa and Asia.

“We’re at the beginning of a journey for continuous improvement by embracing and adapting post-colonial discourse, diversifying exhibition programming and openly admitting our colonial legacies,” Mills said.

Director of The Hunterian Steph Scholten said that decolonising the Hunterian means kicking off into the unknown, as most museums have not begun to delve into their colonial pasts. Scholten believes this is because collections within museums are often equated with power, so the organisations rather feign ignorance than begin to dismantle their own art.

However, the Hunterian’s steps in finding their African collections’ true origins, holding themselves accountable for benefiting from the slave trade and reconstructing labels to reflect a non-colonial perspective is the direction Scholten would rather take, hoping it will inspire other intellectual institutions to do the same. He also said that with a lack of feminist and queer representation, current employment rules still do not allow institutions to prioritise diversifying their workforce, which he hopes will change.

“We need to engage and build strong connections with a range of communities in Glasgow and beyond,” Scholten said. “It won’t be a quick journey, but maybe we should take the African proverb to heart that says: ‘If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together.’”