A Changing Museum

Curating Discomfort

Zandra Yeaman, Curator of Discomfort at The Hunterian

After many years of agitating and campaigning for change within cultural and heritage institutions from the outside, I find myself working on the inside with The Hunterian as their Curator of Discomfort. Since my post has been publicised, many people have been curious and some will ask, What does Curating Discomfort actually mean?

To help create an understanding I want to take you back to 1999 and the Macpherson report. The report was prompted by the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence that sparked a debate about policing and racism.

The report not only highlighted racial discrimination within policing, but institutional racism and inequality in all areas of society. Section 2.19 read, ‘Radical thinking and sustained action are needed in order to tackle it head on, not just in the Police Services of our country, but in all organisations and in particular in the fields of education and family life.’ The report was a time for pause. For education, culture and heritage institutions such as museums to update policy in line with amended legislation but also to explore culture, national heritage and identity.

22 years after Macpherson we find ourselves discussing and exploring these issues once again. Should statues stay or go, should we be renaming our streets and buildings? Why do we not learn about this in school? Do museums need to ‘decolonise'? The debate is welcome and there is no doubt this has brought much of Scotland’s history and links to empire and slavery into wider public understanding. However, the real work is not founded on more symbolic gestures but rather on finally addressing the legacy itself.

In Scotland, the personal and specific historical contexts belonging to people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent link to empire, transatlantic slavery, colonialism and migration, each of which have an extensive impact on Scotland’s economic, demographic, environmental, cultural and social development. Despite this, the histories of these communities are not acknowledged and represented as well as they should be within history, heritage, arts and culture work in Scotland today.

One of the ways forward is to ensure that everyone understands what we mean by this legacy. To do this we need to acknowledge that the concept of different ‘races’ and ‘racial groups’ and the false notions of racial superiority developed during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century are not attitudes that have been left in the past. These ideologies were used to justify the buying and selling of human beings, genocide, looting and plundering. To validate these abhorrent acts an ideology had to be created and this was developed and influenced the social attitudes of the time.

In the present day, these notions still have an influence in all areas of life in Scotland to some degree, from social attitudes, to the way organisations are run, permitting inequalities for Black and minority ethnic people to continue over generations. This is known as ‘structural racism’. It can be seen on a personal level in people’s attitudes and behaviours; on a social level in how people talk to each other and make decisions; and on an institutional level in how organisations conduct their business (‘institutional racism’).

Most people now recognise that racist attitudes and language are unacceptable, but our cultural heritage sites are only now recognising they are not neutral and that for years they have been complicit in perpetuating the ideologies of the previous centuries. That they set a comfortable narrative that has omitted Scotland’s complicity and direct involvement in slavery and colonialism. Therefore, re-writing this narrative will be a long process which will generate discomfort, but will also reveal a more truthful rendering of the past.

Curating Discomfort is looking at ways outside of traditional museum authority to explore the interpretation of contested collections and to design and deliver a series of museum interventions that takes the museum out of the institutional comfort zone. Exploring white supremacy as an economic and cultural system in which white western ideals control the power of the text, the material resources and ideas of cultural superiority.

Discomfort is necessary for genuine change. Addressing the legacy is neither only about debating what we do with the statues honouring the people who perpetuated a racist ideology, nor is it redecorating the structures built from the proceeds of the transatlantic and empire trades. Addressing the legacy is dismantling the structural (and institutional) racism that is perpetuated today and transforming comfortable narratives to include the uncomfortable unvarnished truth.

Projects such as Curating Discomfort will not change things overnight. As the Macpherson report noted, radical thinking needs to be accompanied by sustained action. What we need to do is to collaborate with anti-racist activists, communities, academics, heritage institutions and heritage professionals, to find a way to build a bridge of trust that is strong enough to bear the weight of the truth we are trying it deliver.

A Changing Society, A Changing University, A Changing University Museum

Steph Scholten, Director of The Hunterian

The Hunterian is the oldest public museum in Scotland (1807), in one of the oldest Scottish universities (1451). It is deeply rooted in Scotland’s complex history which has led to multiple inequalities and prejudices that persist today, perhaps most notably in relation to race. Recent global and local events have emphasised once more the necessity for more equity, justice and diversity in our society.

Museums play an important and highly symbolic role for people in the way the past and the present are explained and identities represented. The way we do this is not, cannot be, and has never been neutral.

At The Hunterian, the voices and narratives of those other than a dominant elite remain underrepresented in ways that are no longer acceptable in our day and age. For years to come, we have committed to make The Hunterian a more relevant and meaningful place for more diverse audiences.

Statue of James WattJames Watt, Statues and Slavery

Across the world in the summer of 2020, statues that seemed permanent and secure are being re-evaluated. This statue of Scottish engineer James Watt (1736 - 1819) was given to The Hunterian by Watt’s son in 1833.

Statues always make an argument. This statue helped create an image of Watt as commanding, scholarly, just: a hero.

What the statue does not tell us is that James Watt’s expensive apprenticeship in London was paid for with profits from his father’s trade in North American and Caribbean sugar and tobacco. Watt’s first employment by the University was to repair astronomical instruments donated by Alexander Macfarlane, a wealthy slaveowner who died in Kingston, Jamaica in 1755.

James Watt and his brother John were directly involved, on at least one occasion, in buying and selling an enslaved black child in Scotland.

What do you think about this statue? Does it belong here? Is a statue in a museum different to a statue in a street or square? Does it need a better label, or to be displayed differently? Do statues help us understand the past, or do they sometimes prevent us from understanding the past?

We’d love to hear what you think. Let us know via email.

Image: Francis Leggatt Chantrey (1781-1841), Monument to James Watt, 1830, Marble. Donated by James Watt Junior, 1833. GLAHA:44337.


Black History Month Opening Speech

Watch our Director Steph Scholten’s opening speech for Black History Month 2020.

The Blackstone Chair with Steph Scholten and Zandra Yeaman

Hunterian Director Steph Scholten and newly appointed Curator of Discomfort Zandra Yeaman discuss the Blackstone Chair and its history as part of the BBC's #MuseumPassion event.

The Blackstone Chair continued with Steph Scholten and Zandra Yeaman

Hunterian Director Steph Scholten and Curator of Discomfort Zandra Yeaman further discuss the Blackstone chair and its history as part of the BBC's #MuseumPassion event.