Slavery and Empire in the Glasgow Museums Collection

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MILES Greenwood is the newly named director of the Glasgow Museum’s History of Slavery and Colonialism. Here, he talks about some of the items that will come under his remit in the collection.

Glassford family portrait

A painting by Archibald McLauchlan of the tobacco lord John Glassford and his family from about 1767 was donated to Glasgow Museums in 1950. There was a story about a young enslaved boy who was painted over. During restoration work in 2007, the theory was disproved.

“As far as we know, the enslaved boy was not painted over,” says Miles Greenwood, curator of Slavery and Empire Legacy. “Instead, it was because, over time, the painting faded and dirt accumulated on it. This came out after washing.

The reason I find it fascinating is that it embodies something else that is important to the slave trade, which is that the culture of the enslaved people has been completely lost in this mass, forced transport of people.

Glassford Family Portrait. Image: copyright © CSG CIC Collections of Glasgow Museums and Libraries.

“Their names were either taken from them, changed and adapted, or in this case, the boy in the painting, completely lost,” he said.

We know a lot about John Glassford, who is at the heart of this picture, but one of the slave trade tragedies is that we don’t know much about this particular enslaved child, and we don’t know anything about similar boys who would have lived in aristocratic homes.

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The boy is occupying this room as a prop to illustrate Glassford’s riches rather than as a human being. It is important that we try to retell the story and think of these people as individuals who might have had a life and, whenever possible, find out more about their experiences.

Dagger Sherbro

An Afro-Portuguese Dagger with a carved ivory handle from Sherbro Island, Sierra Leone. In 1974, it became part of the set.

The dagger dates back to the 15th century, the period of the earliest direct Atlantic trade between Europeans and Africans,” Greenwood says. “This predates mass human trade.

An Afro-Portuguese dagger from Sierra Leone’s Sherbro Island. Image: copyright © CSG CIC Collections of Glasgow Museums and Libraries

“It’s important because when we think of the slave trade, we somehow believe that this is the beginning of the history of black peoples. When in reality people all over Africa – from West Africa to Egypt, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe – had these ancient, complex societies that were extremely rich and advanced.

“To understand the impact of the slave trade in terms of what was lost, changed and survived, we have to understand what was there before.”

Figure of Orisha by Osain

More than 40 papier-mâché deities of the Afro-Cuban Santeria faith were included in the 2001 exhibition The Rhythm of the Saints at Kelvingrove by Cuban artist Filiberto Mora. In 2002, Glasgow Museums acquired five pairs of these orishas.

A god of the Santeria religion is what the figure represents,” Greenwood says. “Santeria is most popular in Cuba, but is practiced in the Americas and from what is now Nigeria has its origins in Yoruba culture and religion.

Figure of Osain by Orisha, rendered by Filiberto Mora, Cuba. Image: copyright © CSG CIC Collections of Glasgow Museums and Libraries.

It is important because, even though the colonists attempted to exterminate them, it demonstrates that enslaved African people fought hard to maintain their cultures, beliefs, and identities.

“People in Africa who were enslaved, forcibly transported across the Atlantic, and subjected to brutal forced labor nonetheless retained connections to their roots, as this modern artwork shows.”

Rani from Jhansi

A brass alloy dhokra sculpture of the Rani of Jhansi by father and son Ramu and Shubho Karmakar of West Bengal. It was commissioned in 2013.

“This is also a modern piece,” Greenwood says. “This alloy sculpture depicts Rani Lakshmi Bai, known as the Rani of Jhansi, a warrior queen and one of the leaders of the 1857 Indian uprising against the British East India Company.

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“She is depicted on horseback with a sword in her hand and her adopted son tied around her back. This is how she is said to have fought in battle against the British.

Jhansi’s Rani. Image: Copyright

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