A Changing Museum
A Changing Society, A Changing University, A Changing University Museum
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.
Steph Scholten, Director of The Hunterian, 2020
James 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.