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When it comes to colonial history and the country’s role in transatlantic slavery, historians and scholars have long pondered Scotland’s “collective amnesia”
While there have been recent indications that this lack of understanding is starting to be discussed, this chapter of our history remains an often uncomfortable and difficult process to rediscover and come to terms with.
Glasgow grew rich on the profits of tobacco, sugar and other commodities created by enslaved workers on plantations in America and the West Indies, like most of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Throughout the city, financial wealth is still evident, from the grandeur of the buildings to streets bearing the names of tobacco lords (Glassford, Oswald, Cochrane, Wilson, Dunlop, Buchanan and Ingram) and the places where they made their money (Jamaica, Virginia and Tobago).
Without slavery, Glasgow does not exist today as we know it. And how does one cope with the legacy of this? According to Duncan Dornan, director of museums and collections at Glasgow Life, it will be a phase where accountability is key.
“It’s important that people feel that museums are being absolutely honest about their collections and how they explain and interpret them,” he says. This is not about covering up something or following a narrow, convenient viewpoint.
In the Glasgow Museum collection, there are four items on the subject of slavery and empire.
It is about the truth being known and helping people to understand them. For the time, it is important not to be an apologist, but to clarify what happened so that people can understand it in context.
In conjunction with Glasgow Life, Museums Galleries Scotland is coordinating a national consultation. In September, the Scottish government announced that it will fund an independent advisory committee to make recommendations about how current and future collections of museums would better define and show a more detailed portrayal of our colonial and slave past.
This fall, Glasgow Museum hired its first dedicated Curator of the History of Slavery and Empire, Miles Greenwood, whose duties will include establishing a program of community involvement and collaborative research.
His aim is to reshape the awareness of the ties between today’s slave trade, colonialism, and their legacies. This means curating fresh exhibits around the city that display the influence of slavery and imperialism.
Greenwood, who previously worked in visitor studies at the Paisley Museum, would also establish a public program of seminars, tours and events in partnership with local communities.
Curator of the Legacies of Slavery and Empire for Glasgow Museums, Miles Greenwood. At the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Glasgow, he is photographed. Photo by Colin Mearns/The
When we talk with him in early November, Greenwood has only been in office for a little more than a month, his first interview since taking the job. But if he feels overwhelmed by the gigantic challenge ahead, it does not appear on his face.
At this point, the number of items in the collections that may relate to or fall under the theme of slavery and empire is difficult to estimate. Greenwood will work to recognize key pieces and the stories behind them over the next two years.
Greenwood, who was born in Manchester and raised in Stockport, points out that his own history is related to enslavement, slavery and migration. He says, ‘I suppose I am a child of imperialism in many respects.
My mother’s family is from Jamaica – as part of the Windrush generation, my grandparents came over. My stepmother is from India and Malaysia, and my partner is from China and Malaysia. So there is this entire legacy of the former British colonies gathering around me.
In infancy, his fascination for history began. “I was so young that I don’t even remember,” Greenwood says. “The spark was ancient history.” In your own mind, there’s so much you can imagine and perceive. I was in the grip of antiquity.
In the Glasgow Museum collection, four items concerning slavery and empire
“I became more and more interested in history as I grew older. My grandmother would get me books and speak to me about it when I was interested in a topic. This kind of support helped m