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Plan to ‘Decolonise’ Guildford Museum Stirs a Storm of Comment and Criticism

Published on: 24 Jul, 2020
Updated on: 24 Jul, 2020

By Martin Giles

A GBC press release titled “Uncovering the True History of Guildford” has sparked comment and criticism from those with close knowledge of Guildford’s history and its museum, as well councillors from all parts of the political spectrum.

See also: Dragon Interview: Cllr James Steel on ‘Decolonising’ the Museum

The release was issued under the name of Cllr James Steel, (Lib Dem, Westborough) as lead for Environment (whose portfolio includes Guildford Museum) but it was preceded by an article on the Guildford Lib Dem website, “Decolonising the Guildford Collection”. Some wording in the Lib Dem article and release is identical.

Cllr James Steel

Cllr Steel’s GBC statement includes “recent events in America and the UK have led us to ensure we are telling the true story of our borough’s past”.

And he adds: “As part of a refreshed strategy and following many museums nationally, we had planned on reviewing the origins of our collections held in our museum. We have possessions from all over the world and we want to tell their whole story.

“Part of the review plan was to begin to ‘decolonise’ our collection. This means we will consider each piece with particular awareness to any links to our country’s colonial past, including in the context of any racial bias.

“Although we have made great strides in the equality agenda in this country, and transformative progress has unquestionably been made over the past two decades, it is important that we recognise prejudice still exists and we still have some way to go.

“We need to have all the facts so we can be clear when we explain the history in context. For example, this may mean some items came here as part of the slave trade, and have family connections to plantations or seafarers involved in slavery.”

Matthew Alexander

But the council’s own “honorary remembrancer” Matthew Alexander, former curator of the museum, said: “I am disappointed that it is felt Guildford Museum might not be telling the ‘true’ history of Guildford, and there are dark secrets in its collections that have to be ‘uncovered’.

“In 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade was commemorated (a replica slave ship,‘the Zong’, was moored alongside the Tower of London). At that time museum staff, myself included, explored any local connections we might have with the slave trade, and found none.

“That the museum has not acquired material from outside Surrey precludes anything from foreign countries in our collections. While I understand the importance of demonstrating our rejection of any racial discrimination or cultural appropriation, I cannot think Guildford Museum has any examples of either.”

Dr Mary Alexander

And Dr Mary Alexander, the former collections officer of the museum, added: “Guildford Museum does not have objects ‘from all over the world’ and never has had. The museum was founded to show the history and archaeology of Surrey, and later on, of Guildford.

“The 19th-century collections had a handful of objects, such as spears from New Zealand and Malaya, which were disposed of 100 years ago. In the 1980s, a few remaining ethnographic collections were transferred to more appropriate museums. It is impossible to know why or how they were collected, except that they were valued as interesting objects.

“Public consultation is not desirable. Museum ethics are complicated and best left to the professionals.”

Gavin Morgan

Gavin Morgan, formerly of Guildford Museum and the Museum of London and founder of the Guildford Heritage Forum, said: “Black Lives Matter is obviously a vital issue we must all support. Museums can make an invaluable contribution to it by putting all our lives in perspective and telling our stories. So why is the council undermining the museum by inaccurately suggesting it might have loads of items from former colonies?

“It is a local history museum. Our museum staff do not need to waste time auditing tens of thousands of perfectly fine objects. Instead, they should focus on telling the stories of all Guildfordians from all communities from all perspectives. That would be a far better way to combat prejudice.”

Cllr Angela Gunning

Angela Gunning leader of the Labour group at GBC, said: “Gavin makes some very valid points. I am a member of the museum working group (now on hold). I understand that a great deal of what is on display and all the stuff in storage belongs to Surrey Archeological Society. Is there any idea how this proposal plans to involve them, if at all?”

Cllr Joss Bigmore (R4GV, Christchurch) deputy leader of GBC and fellow member of the Lib Dem/R4GV Executive who is expected to take over as council leader in September, said: “To be honest, I was surprised by the Liberal Democrat press release on this topic.

Cllr Joss Bigmore

“I think we need to be very careful with words like ‘decolonisation’ which could be interpreted in many different ways.

“But having discussed this with Cllr Steel, I’m assured this will be a very open and transparent process with all stakeholders consulted before any decisions are made.”

Cllr Steel’s Lib Dem article says “de-colonising” the collection will involve several different elements: “The first would be to look at the collection we hold and gain an understanding of three issues:
• Where were got it from;
• How we obtained it; and
• Whether we should send it back to its place of origin to be displayed in their museums.

Lib Dem Article

“For items that hold significance within Britain’s colonial past, there will be write-ups provided explaining how the artefact was obtained and its context within Britain’s colonial history. If it’s a painting or illustration of a figure of Guildford’s past, then a write-up on how they were involved in colonial activities will be produced.

“An example of where this would be done would be a portrait of an individual who through research is known to have been involved in colonial activities of the time (eg slave ownership).”

Cllr Paul Spooner

Cllr Paul Spooner, leader of the Conservative ‘independent’ group said: “I feel very strongly about this. I have asked the following questions for answer at GBC’s full council meeting on Tuesday [July 28]:

“On 20th July 2020, Cllr James Steel in a Guildford Lib Dem website post stated he was pleased to announce a project to decolonise Guildford Borough Council’s historic collections. He referenced a strategy timespan of 2020-2024 and stated this was the top priority for GBC Heritage service to achieve over that period. The reason for the decision to decolonise the collection is given as being ‘coupled’ with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I intend to ask the lead member:

  • Why he believes that he has a mandate for “decolonising” the Guildford collection without any discussion within the wider council, any motion or policy being presented at Executive or to Full Council;
  • Why no consultation has taken place to affirm that this is the will of the wider community;
  • For confirmation that the leadership at GBC are now “coupled” with the Black Lives Movement and advise the council what the partnership means, what are the desired outcomes for the whole community and whether Black Lives Matter takes precedence over “All Lives Matter” in this context; and
  • For an explanation of how the leadership team are going to define “colonisation” in relation to history?

“While I fully support the principle of stamping out racism in society I am concerned about the process being championed by the Lib Dems in Guildford. What is being proposed should involve the community in the decision-making process, including the clarity of how GBC are defining and applying ‘decolonisation’; does it include Roman and Viking artefacts from the times we were ‘colonised’?”

Cllr Ramsey Nagaty

Cllr Ramsay Nagaty (GGG, Shalford), said: “Guildford Museum holds artefacts from the past. We cannot whitewash the past, but we can reflect and purvey history in a wider and more thorough context. If the museum does this then all the better.

“It is for all individuals to treat everyone with equal respect and dignity. If we all did, problem solved.”

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Responses to Plan to ‘Decolonise’ Guildford Museum Stirs a Storm of Comment and Criticism

  1. James Walsh Reply

    July 24, 2020 at 5:28 pm

    I agree with Gavin Morgan 100%. As a historian, telling all stories and presenting facts and evidence for people to make their own minds up is a cornerstone of the discipline.

    What Cllr Steel and the Lib Dems presented on their website was ill-thought-through, patronising and showed little understanding of the approach to history. Why they thought they were the sole arbiters of what is and what isn’t “acceptable” in the museum beggars belief.

    It might have been more useful to have consulted on this first, not least because consultation with members and the public should be at the heart of what we do as a council.

    James Walsh is a Labour borough councillor for Stoke.

  2. Susan Parker Reply

    July 24, 2020 at 5:30 pm

    I’m in agreement with Gavin Morgan, Cllr Paul Spooner and James Walsh on this.

    Susan Parker is a GGG borough councillor for Send.

  3. Dr Mary Alexander Reply

    July 24, 2020 at 6:56 pm

    I would like to add, it seems very unlikely that Cllr Steel has consulted the museum staff, otherwise he would have been told that this process would take about four minutes, not four years. There may be as many as five objects which come from other countries.

    Regarding their origin, the vast majority are from Surrey – which is the whole point of the museum.

    They were obtained by gift, purchase or loan. How it came into the donor’s, seller’s or lender’s hand is usually un-knowable.

    Should it be sent back? There is nothing in the collection which the country of origin would want back.

    Colonial history. Surrey, in general, had no involvement with colonial history, nor does this handful of objects illustrate it. There would have been people in Surrey who owned slave plantations, but they are not represented in the collections.

    This is not a matter for public consultation. Repatriation of objects is a complicated process. Does the country exist anymore? Does it have properly run museums? Does the government represent the people who made the items? If the gift or purchase of an object was legal at the time, how can you undo that?

    Is it right to send a statue of a human to a fundamentalist Muslim country knowing they will destroy it? Or to send objects to a dictatorship where you suspect they will be misused or not put on public display? The spoils of war are also complicated if it was accepted practice at the time.

    Dr Mary Alexander is the former collections officer at Guildford Museum.

  4. Jim Allen Reply

    July 24, 2020 at 7:21 pm

    Trying to rewrite history. Will they remove the Samien pot found in Burpham? It was brought in by slave-owning Romans.

    • John Lomas Reply

      July 24, 2020 at 10:28 pm

      As were the roman coins.

  5. Stuart Barnes Reply

    July 24, 2020 at 10:04 pm

    Has everyone gone mad?

    • John Powell Reply

      July 25, 2020 at 12:00 pm

      It does rather look like it, I think people need to get out more.

  6. Sean Jenkinson Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 9:38 am

    We can’t change the past but we can try and learn from it. I say try because while everyone is concentrated on something, however bad it was, that happened 300-400 years ago, no one seems to mention the modern slavery that is going on right now, including child slavery that is happening all over the world.

    It would be nice to hear what Cllr Caroline Reeves thinks of this.

  7. Marion Gooding Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 10:37 am

    Cllr Steel obviously knows very little about the history of Guildford nor about the artefacts held there. How is he in a position to make this high-handed statement of intent without any consultation with the wider council nor the people of Guildford?

  8. Dave Middleton Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 12:10 pm

    Having watched Martin Giles’ apparently unedited video interview, Cllr Steel does not come across very well at all. My impression is that he was unable to give a straight or informed answer to pretty much any of Martin Giles’ questions.

    The thing I take away from this, is that he seems to have precious little knowledge of the museum or its artefacts. His aims would most likely have been much better served by perhaps visiting the museum and speaking to the curators, before making a grand public statement (but of course there would be no political capital to be made by doing that).

    Call me cynical, but this has all the hallmarks of a young man fresh from, or possibly still at, university and possibly seeking to become a career politician, looking to make a name for himself and, no doubt looking to enhance his political CV.

    Pray tell, when will all this “decolonising” stop? Where do we draw the line? The vast majority of this country’s population today know perfectly well that slavery, racism, discrimination in any form is wrong. Constantly dragging up the events and actions of our grandparents and ancestors, born of a very different time, with very different social norms and attempting to apply today’s standards to them is both foolish, divisive and destructive.

    Editor’s note: The interview was unedited other than deleting pre- and post-interview footage. Any editing we carry out would not be to change the sense of the interview or its balance.

    • Frank Phillipson Reply

      July 26, 2020 at 9:28 pm

      In answer to Dave Middleton’s query, this from the Lib Dem website: “James Steel is a student at the University of Surrey and an activist there. He joined the Lib Dems because he said he saw them as a group that was ‘out to do good together'”.

  9. Jack Bayliss Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 3:57 pm

    Like your other correspondents, I am appalled at Cllr Steel’s suggestion – or is it a proposal?

    The logic of this vogue line of thought is that not only should any statues of men who made their fortunes in the colonies be removed, but the great civic buildings in Glasgow, Liverpool and other cities should be demolished because they were built using wealth which came from America, the West Indies and India.

  10. Juliet Hills Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 4:04 pm

    In response to Stuart Barnes, yes, everyone’s gone mad. I was at Horsell Primary with you and Michael.

    “Me Too” was necessary, “BLM” is a wake-up call and a challenge, now this colonial history is the biggest can of worms of all.

    I’m admired for my British accent here in the Midwest, but it isn’t easy to be white, middle class, and woke (that’s probably because I’m from Woking).

    The chickens seem to be coming home to roost, or to roast the remnant of the era of handover in the 40s-60s as non-white, Australasian and Canadian cultures claimed their own governance.

  11. Geoff Stonehouse Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    Bandwagons, though noisy, pass by.

  12. Moira MacQuaide Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 6:24 pm

    Guildford Museum holds, as others have already said, a collection of local history artefacts. It is not there to reflect what went on in other parts of the world unless they relate to Guildford’s history in some way.

    We should not try to whitewash history. We should celebrate the good things and learn from the not so good things. But we should also remember that what we deem to be good or bad today may be deemed the absolute opposite in 100 years time. Just as what was celebrated and acceptable 100 years ago may be criticised today.

    History is important and we should understand what went on in the past and how people lived, otherwise we will never learn and will just repeat mistakes over and over again.

  13. Linda Day Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 6:33 pm

    The Liberals Democrats, as usual, do not speak for the majority and should realise that history cannot be whitewashed. It is what made Guildford what it is today.

  14. Paul Robinson Reply

    July 25, 2020 at 6:59 pm

    If the Lib Dem councillors feel so strongly about history and the use of slaves perhaps they will review their personal and official use of German-made cars such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes as during World War 2 they used concentration camp slave workers in their factories.

    It is all too easy to review museum artefacts but if you are serious about this subject you cannot be seen using companies still in existence today that took advantage of the availability of slave labour. Or would that be too inconvenient?

  15. Jules Cranwell Reply

    July 26, 2020 at 8:52 am

    If the Lib Dems really want to make a stand for equality, they have the perfect opportunity in front of their noses. They could make a stand against the abuse of human rights in China, and in particular the persecution of the Uighurs, including mass incarceration, and enforced sterilisation.

    How, they may ask? Well, they could start by officially and formally ending ties with the town of Dongying, which the Tories so cynically signed up to, without bothering to consult the residents of Guildford. This is a continuing atrocity, rather than some imagined glorification of colonialism by the museum.

    How about it?

  16. Russell Morris Reply

    July 26, 2020 at 11:45 am

    Perhaps Cllr Steel should be grateful that Clandon House was destroyed by fire, since its construction is believed to have been funded from the slavery derived fortune of Thomas Onslow’s wife.

    But be careful where you apportion guilt for historic transgressions. Onslow was a Whig, forerunner of the Lib Dems.

    Maybe we should simply reflect on LP Hartley’s words: the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.

  17. Gavin Morgan Reply

    July 26, 2020 at 4:00 pm

    In 2012 1,000 objects from the museum collection were photographed. It has taken eight years to get 100 written up and put online (see Take a Closer Look on Museum website).

    At that rate it will be 2090 before they are all online. Just imagine how long it will take to review 100,000 objects, “consider each piece” and write them up.

    On the other hand, the museum already has an inventory. A report could be produced within a month. This has not been thought through.

  18. Harry Eve Reply

    July 26, 2020 at 9:56 pm

    I suggest, rather than spend their time looking for trouble in the museum, the Lib Dems set about putting right the recent wrongs inflicted on Guildford by the Conservative party through its hurried implementation of the appalling Local Plan just before they lost power.

    Failure to do so could lead to the Lib Dems following the Tories into local history.

  19. Colin Cross Reply

    July 27, 2020 at 2:26 pm

    Personally, I would suggest that politicians can safely leave it to the museum’s curators to manage their own show as they have done for many decades.

    The plight that Guildford is now facing, manifesting itself across the social, economic, infrastructure and planning fields, is a huge one and getting larger. We need not lose sleep over our museum when we are faced with a myriad of much more fundamental matters that require our urgent and full-time attention.

    This rather smacks of losing the plot, both individually and on a group basis.

    Written in my private capacity.

    Colin Cross is the R4GV borough councillor for Lovelace (Ripley, Wisley and Ockham).

  20. Brian Matthews Reply

    July 27, 2020 at 5:35 pm

    The thing that I find most shocking about Cllr Steel’s statement is the admission that he attended the Black Lives Matter march in Guildford on the June 6. This was illegal and despite pleas not to attend these marches from government, police and hard-working NHS staff, he still attended.

    The vast majority of Guildfordians obeyed and respected this request, does Cllr Steel feel that he is somehow above the law or that the lockdown rules Just Didn’t Matter?

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