Museums ignore recommendations on colonialism

In January, the government supported recommendations for museums to “recontextualise” their collections to include chattel slavery and colonialism. Yet with two major cultural openings in Tayside this year — the new Perth Museum and the Kimono exhibition at the V&A Dundee — both have failed to change the white-centric narrative that dominates these sectors.

Whitewashing Scottish History

Spanning two floors, Perth Museum appears to give a comprehensive retelling of local history. An important part has been the city’s role as “an economic and industrial centre for hundreds of years.” 

But there is no explanation of how these trades were implicated in chattel slavery, neither the plantation owners who profited from it nor local abolitionist efforts. There is a section dedicated to the urban elite, who were connected by “business interests” among other things — but how they gained their wealth is seemingly not deemed important.

There are only two mentions of the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans — and these can be found at the very back of the museum in a sparse and disconnected section titled “Untold Stories”. 


One celebrates Scotland for legalising the freedom of a formerly enslaved African man in the 18th century, and the other focuses on an English cotton baron — the subtext being that Scotland was progressive and played no part in this violence. 

The reality, however, is very different. During that time, Glasgow controlled most of the world’s tobacco trade — with this legacy still seen today in its buildings, monuments and street names. 

Scottish enslavers were considered to be among the most brutal, with life expectancy on a Scottish-owned plantation averaging seven years (although many enslaved people only survived for two). And despite only making up 10% of the British population in 1833, Scots claimed approximately 15-16% of the compensation awards offered for the “loss of human property” when chattel slavery was abolished — illustrating that Scotland had the greatest per capita stake in transatlantic trafficking compared to the rest of the UK.

There is also no mention of how the extraction of India’s resources and exploitation of its people boosted Perthshire’s wealth, even though Scots were overrepresented in imperialist activities in India between 1725 and 1833, compared to the rest of the UK. 

Nabobs brought back to Scotland such large fortunes — often from corrupt and exploitative means — that the investment into the home economy was disproportionate to even the number of Scots travelling to the subcontinent. 

But Perth Museum is well aware of these connections. Last year, Culture Perth & Kinross hosted a lecture on “Perthshire’s slavery past”. And the museum itself gave a talk on its own links with the British East India Company and the artefacts that it had “acquired”. It has said itself: “Culture Perth & Kinross is committed to acknowledging and exploring the history and legacies of colonialism and slavery, and the links between those histories and Perth & Kinross’s Recognised Collection of National Significance.”

So these are more than just omissions — it is a deliberate whitewashing of Scottish history.

Exoticising Japanese Culture

I had mistakenly hoped that V&A Dundee would have done a little better, given its commitment to tackling Scotland’s colonial history. Particularly as its last exhibition, Tartan, did not shy away from its links to the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Africans. 

Its Kimono exhibition, however, is predicated on racist stereotypes and the exoticisation of Japan and East Asia.

Information about each section is displayed on paper dividers — a cliché and reduction of Japanese interior design — with the fashion of kimonos told from a white perspective. 

Racist depictions of Japanese people are shown in posters of theatrical productions. While the exhibition acknowledges the stereotyping (but never daring to mention the R word), it shrugs these off as “enjoyable, escapist fantasy”. 

By playing the “there’s two sides” game to cultural appropriation, the museum dismiss the views of the oppressed and fails to grasp the difference between collaboration and exploitation.

Overall, the narrative of the V&A exhibition feels incredibly outdated. It could have made a concerted effort to educate visitors with an anti-racist and anti-colonial lens. 

But Japanese people and culture have been objectified, both in the Kimono exhibition and also in the way the country has been “themed” in other areas of the building. With auction houses having recently held “Asia Week”, its orientalist views are unfortunately reflective of the wider fine arts sector.

Can a warehouse of loot ever truly be decolonised?

In both institutions we cannot ignore the question of repatriation. Perth Museum attempts to address this in its “loot” room, explaining how some of the objects were acquired by the museum and by people in Perthshire. But it does not commit to returning these stolen items to their countries or peoples of origin. 

The V&A however, makes no obvious attempt to interrogate the sources of its collection. This could be because it does not care. Its London director, Tristam Hunt, has argued that “once something enters the museum, it can’t leave” — reminiscent of a child playing finders keepers.

But repatriating objects will not make these institutions less racist. Harmful colonial narratives need to be confronted and dismantled through community-led curating and decentring white perspectives. 

The government has acknowledged this, arguing that sharing Scotland’s links to empire, colonialism and chattel slavery is “crucial” for museums to reduce the harms caused by “inaccurate interpretations”. 

But the government thinks that time will be the biggest hurdle. The recommendations were first published two years ago, and they have still been ignored.

It is the culture within these institutions that needs to drastically change, and I don’t think this will happen any time soon. Because this means changing who is seen as the expert.

See also in our Decolonisation series:

Decolonising Scotland by Anahit Behrooz

A Decolonial Approach to Historic Archives by Aayushi Gupta

Decolonising Theatre: A Playwright’s Perspective by Raman Mundair

Libraries of the Future by Eilidh Akilade

Decolonising Scottish Theatre by Jaïrus Obayomi

Acts of Resistance by Raman Mundair

UncoverEd and the Decolonisation of Edinburgh University by Anahit Behrooz

Exploring Scotland’s colonial past: making a case for decolonisation by Uncovered


All photo credits: Aileen Lees





Comments (13)

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  1. Dr Duncan MacLaren says:

    Congratulations to Aileen on an excellent article on an important theme. My background is international aid and development and I and others have been trying to decolonise our language (Global South, not developing country since we are all developing), images used for fundraising (showing people with dignity getting on with building community rather than looking constantly miserable and incapable of doing anything for themselves and standing with false grins as an NGO CEO, who is, of course, white, male and western, looks on), making the link between neocolonialism and ODA (the UK being notorious for this) and making sure the people being ‘aided’ are programme participants, not beneficiaries, and are, in the words of Amartya Sen, the ‘doers and judges’of any programmes. Perth Museum and the V&A have to take a long, hard look at their exhibitions through a decolonialising lens.

    1. Aileen Lees says:

      Thank you Duncan for the kind words and also for the insight. It’s really encouraging to hear about the work that you are doing. I agree with your approach — something I find uncomfortable is the use of Black and Brown people (particularly children) in marketing, which is prevalent in the third sector as well as in news reporting. The suffering and grief of Black and Brown people is normalised in an often voyeuristic way.

      And to add to your point about these links between neocolonialism and ODA, it is galling when Global South countries are considered as “developing” despite many being resource-rich, because of the continued exploitation from the Global North. As Aja Barber writes in her book Consumed: The Need For Collective Change; Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism, it’s not a coincidence that the trade routes of the fast fashion industry’s resources — including materials, manufacturing and labour — can be mapped identically with historical colonial routes.

      There are obviously so many threads to this which filter up to policy-making level, but for these exhibitions it really shows the mindset (and lack of diversity) within these institutions.

    2. 240607 says:

      More importantly (and this is reinforced by the language we use) is the colonisation of other cultures that’s at least implicit in our curation of their artefacts (basically, we interpret those artefacts through the lens of European culture).

      If we will insist on presenting those artefacts outwith their larger cultural contexts (i.e. in museums), then we should at least entrust their presentation to curators who are constructed by the cultural context from which they’ve been removed.

      1. Niemand says:

        Is there something intrinsically wrong with viewing something through a European lens, or indeed any lens?

        I would argue not necessarily though it should be recognised as a lens in the first place.

        One of the more interesting things can be a different culture looking at European things through their own lens as it can throw new light on it and in reality unless you insist that all such exhibitions are only ever curated and presented by those from the culture being presented, it will always have an outsider’s lens. It seems to be part of the idea that we can only comment on our own (e.g. in literature, drama etc) which strikes me as a failure of the idea of imagination and empathy being possible.

        1. 240607 says:

          Of course we read everything through some lens; we can’t avoid it. That’s a basic principle of philosophical hermeneutics; we can never be entirely objective in our readings.

          What I’m agin in my anti-colonialism is “the curst conceit o ‘bein richt'”, the supposition that the world seen through the lens of (i.e. colonised by) European culture is the ‘real’ world.

          That is what I meant by my suggestion that, if we’re not going to return artefacts to their original time and place, we should at the very least restore them to their cultual context by entrusting their presentation to curators who are constructed by the cultural context from which they’ve been removed.

          Establishing such dialogues between ourselves, as we’re culturally constructed, and others who are differently contructed is how we expand our own horizons and grow our understanding.

          1. Niemand says:

            Hmm, that doesn’t really answer my question as it is quite a narrow example you focus on, an example that has clear moral authority – this stuff is stolen, so . . . But the article casts a much bigger net.

          2. 240608 says:

            I can’t see how much clearer I could have been. The answer to your question is a resounding ‘No!’.

            There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with viewing something through a European lens, or indeed any lens, providing:

            a) that we recognise and acknowledge (i) that we’re doing so and (ii) that they question as to whose lens is the ‘true’ one is undecidable, and
            b) providing that we endeavour to engage dialogically with alternative perspectives in order to be forever ‘broadening our horizons’ (aka ‘learning’ and ‘growing’).

  2. Niemand says:

    When it comes to the V&A exhibition there is very little detail here to form an opinion and I was interested in this statement:

    ‘By playing the “there’s two sides” game to cultural appropriation, the museum dismiss the views of the oppressed and fails to grasp the difference between collaboration and exploitation.’

    I cannot see what this refers to. What is the cultural appropriation? Why is it wrong (it isn’t by default) in this case and what does the two-sides game consist of?

    I find the Perth example is explored more clearly and makes a strong case but as it stands, not the Dundee exhibition.

  3. SleepingDog says:

    Yes; I’ve got to the chapter on Rights and Reparations in philosopher Susan Neiman’s Learning from the Germans: Confronting Race and the Memory of Evil. Although the picture is complicated, the broad implication is that while some individuals escape from racist conditioning, societal improvement comes by older generations of racists dying off. The book looks at flaws and progress in East German coming-to-terms, which is apparently much better than West German efforts (two strands merging after reunification), which unified Germany is still apparently much better than USAmerican Southern racism, which has still to embrace shame for racialised chattel slavery on the whole.

    And yet, the British (yes, especially the culpable Scots, whose entry into Union came after widely-supported colonising failure at Darien and on condition of entry into Anglo slave markets) seem worse still about reckoning with colonial crimes. Swastikas are banned, Confederate flags are lowered, but the British bang on about their imagined glorious past and shamelessly revel in royalism, despite it being the racist capstone of a racist Empire.

    Neiman talks quite a lot about museums; I’ve just been reading about ones in Selma, Alabama. Perhaps we need a Scottish Museum of Empire to achieve even the minimum of Enlightenment and engaging with our real history, instead of just the odd state project. I note there are dramatic links too. Arts are surely another failure area when it comes to telling our history. Al Jazeera’s Studio B Unscripted has some relevant conversations and criticism on that front:

    If we understand our Empire as a centuries-long crime-spree directed by the winning organised crime family in dynastic wars, whose patronage has bought personality cults and whitewashing of atrocities from a servile arts sector, then perhaps we can start to understand why our institutions are stuffed with loot.

  4. SteveH says:

    To point out the absurdity of the Antiracism and Decolonisation argument, it’s useful to refer to Prof. Doug Stokes’ book: “Against Decolonisation”.

    Having met, and listened to Doug in a Free Speech debate on this topic, I’m sure he won’t mind me quoting and paraphrasing him from chapter 4 of that excellent book:

    “The Life of Ordinary People in the UK During the Period of Slavery.

    It is crucial that we also examine the life of ordinary people in Britain at the time of slavery and after its abolition. As we have seen, the broader progressive identity politics and decolonisation movement makes an explicitly generalised critique of the collective racial guilt of white people (‘whiteness’) and British institutions that need to ‘decolonise’ in order to atone for historical sins. How accurate is this theory of collective racial responsibility and white privilege?”

    Paraphrasing what followed:

    1. Universal suffrage in Britain did not begin until 1928, when all women regardless of property qualification were given the vote.

    2. In early 19th Century Britain, practically no one had the vote. A survey in England & Wales in 1780 showed only 214,00 out of a population of 8 million (<3%) were eligible to vote.

    3. In Scotland, only 2,400 out of 2.6m were eligible to vote in Parliamentary elections.

    4. Britain was not a democracy, but was ruled by a tiny minority. The British population did not vote for the “empire” or trans-Atlantic slavery. They had no say whatsoever.

    5. In fact, many sailors with the Royal Navy were violently press-ganged into service. It even triggered the 1812 war with the US when 15,000 US sailors were press-ganged.

    6. In the 1800’s, life and conditions in Britain for most of the population was short and brutish. In 1841 life expectancy was 41 years. Child Labour was common. In 1838, 26 children between 9 and 15 years old were drowned in a mine when a local river overflowed. Women also worked in the mine, one such woman recounted doing so since the age of 6 years old. The last climbing chimney sweep boy died in 1875. In Victorian England, children from impoverished families were commonly sold into “apprenticeships”. In those time it’s estimated that as much as 6.5% of the population found themselves in workhouses at some time.

    7. The vast majority of the population at the time of the slavery trade, and afterwards lived in poverty, were diseased, hungry and lived short lives. They did not vote for slavery or Empire. Britain was not a democracy. It was a choice of the ruling classes.

    8. Maintenance of the Empire came at a huge cost to the vast destitute, majority of the British population, including the compensation paid to the Slave owners (with the advent of abolition).

    Doug’s direct words again:

    “Slavery, colonisation and imperial domination do not belong to any state, civilisation or race of people, and its manifestation has been the norm throughout human history”.

    From my perspective, as a working class man, who has known poverty and oppression, the charge of oppressor can be laid squarely at the feet of the middle and upper classes who have always dominated, and who now once more try to impose their outrageous ideas dreamt up in the top universities, and which is designed to enable rule using a different form of domination, namely that of Neo-Marxism, critical race theory and identity politics.

    My final point: I would not heap the blame for the Empire on the descendants of those elites of that era, nor seek reparations from them, but I would insist that the critical social justice warriors amongst them drop that divisive and destructive belief system which now seeks to punish everyone judged guilty simply by the colour of the skin they were born with.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @SteveH, geez, if you hate your country so much, why do you say you’d love to die for it?

    2. 240609 says:

      You have a point, Steve, that the proletariat (the propertyless classes, which provide the agency of revolution and social justice in modern history) are oppressed by the bourgeoisie (the propertied classes, whose social and political power is based on the perpetration of economic injustice), and that one of the means by which the bourgeoisie keep the proletariat down is the cultural hegemony it exercises over the production of our ideologies and belief systems.

      This very point, however, is the pure Marxism that underlies the practice of critical theory, whose role is to disrupt the hegemony that the bourgeoisie exercises over our ideas, feelings, and their behavioural expressions by revealing and challenging the power structures that are implicit in them. It’s this sustained critique of the dominant ideology that’s the work of critical theory.

      A decent argument could be made for the view that so-called ‘woke’ culture is the dominant ideology in late capitalist society and that, as such, is part of the apparatus by which the propertied classes keep the propertyless classes down. In the global context of late capitalism, this proletariat includes the dispossessed of the global South (some of whom appear as migrants on our shores) as well as the dispossessed of the global North’s former industrial communities.

      And a further argument could be made that the so-called ‘culture wars’ is a distraction, perpetrated by both the ‘left’ and ‘right’ wings of the bourgeois establishment, from the real ‘class war’ between the global proletariat and the global bourgeoisie, a distraction which (among other things) pits the dispossessed of the global South and the dispossessed of the global North against one another in phoney culture and race wars.

      So, don’t be a patsy, Steve. As a self-declared member of the global North’s dispossessed, join with your bothers and sisters from the global South in the struggle for social justice against the bourgeois oppression that dispossesses you and migrants alike. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win.

  5. Bill Boyd says:

    Yes, it certainly seems that Scots are at their most ruthless when they identify as ‘British’.

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