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Museum and arts centre where British colonialist Cecil Rhodes was born is changing its name

An arts centre and museum, which includes the house in which controversial colonialist Cecil Rhodes was born, has changed its name following Black Lives Matter protests.

The Rhodes Art Complex in Bishop’s Stortford, Herts, has severed its 82 year link to the controversial imperial figure, who was born in the building which now houses Bishop’s Stortford Museum on July 17, 1890.

It follows a petition signed by hundreds of residents, as well as a deluge of emails and calls protesting the name and pressure from campaign group Stortford Against Rhodes. 

The move also comes after other organisations moved to distance themselves from the colonialist, including a prestigious University of Oxford college, which agreed to remove his statue from one of its buildings following protests by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

Now the Rhodes Arts Complex will change its name to South Mill Arts.

The Stortford Against Rhodes campaign today welcomed the move, which it called ‘long overdue’, while trustees promised to work with schools ‘to educate students about the life and times of Rhodes and the wider history of Bishop’s Stortford’.

As well as change the name of the complex, trustees running the centre have also cut ties to the colonist – who critics argue paved the way for the apartheid in southern Africa.

They will change the name of their group from the Rhodes Birthplace Trust to the Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Arts Charitable Incorporated Organisation.

However the body says it will not eradicate Rhodes from the town’s history, instead promising to educate school children about his legacy.

Meanwhile the Stortford Against Rhodes group has called for more to be done and said the arts complex – which has hosted David Bowie, The Who, Moody Blues, Fleetwood Mac, Elton – should reflect the affluent town’s residents. 

In a statement the group said: ‘The Rhodes Arts Complex is primarily funded by the citizens of Bishop’s Stortford through taxes and donations and as such should be inclusive of all members of the community.

‘The renaming is long overdue and whilst we appreciate their swiftness in meeting to discuss this issue, we would like to see immediate action to remove the name as well as commitment to further change.’

They added: ‘Rhodes was a white supremacist and not someone the signatories would like celebrated in this town. We need to educate the community on Cecil Rhodes, not exalt him.’      

In a statement issued today the trust said: ‘In line with its strategy to relaunch the Rhodes Arts Complex, to better fulfil its anticipated future role in the cultural life of Bishop’s Stortford and district, the Rhodes Birthplace Trust has announced that the new name for the complex will be South Mill Arts.

‘Whilst the trust originally indicated that it would consult the local community about a new name, the lively debate in the press, on social media and in unsolicited emails to the complex has more than adequately expressed the community’s views and the trustees now feel that such a consultation is not necessary.

‘The rationale behind the chosen name is based upon the location of the complex and an examination of the town’s industrial heritage, as themed by the museum.’

The trust’s chairwoman Deirdre Glasgow added: ‘We have kept our promise to the town and chosen a name that does not honour any person, living or dead, but does have a historical link to the town and its wider history.    

Rhodes, a revered figure during the days of the British Empire, founded the De Beers mining company in South Africa and also took control of territory in southern Africa that eventually became Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

He believed that the English were the master race and both South Africa and the former Rhodesia were ruled by white minorities for many years.

Thousands of locals signed a petition calling for the removal of Rhodes’ name from the arts centre and in June the trust revealed it would change its name. 

The venue began as a memorial museum, financed by prominent Rhodesians after they bought the building where Rhodes was born, Netteswell House.

In 1938, 36 years after his death, it became part of the Rhodes Memorial Museum.

Its premises were later extended and opened in 1963 as the Rhodes Memorial Museum and Commonwealth Centre.

The buildings were refurbished to form the current complex in 2005.

The facility will formally change its name on Monday, August 24.

The name change comes after the governing body of Oxford University’s Oriel College in June said it wanted to remove the controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Board members met two months ago to discuss the future of the monument, which is one of dozens of targets appearing on a list of statues Black Lives Matter protesters want to see taken down for links to racism and colonialism.

Recent Black Lives Matter protests reignited discussion on whether the statue should be removed – particularly in the wake of a monument to 18th century slave trader Edward Colston being pulled down and dumped in the harbour in Bristol.

Critics argue Rhodes paved the way for the apartheid in southern Africa, and raise issue with his time as leader of the Cape Colony, from 1890 to 1896, when government restricted black Africans’ rights by increasing the financial criteria people required in order to vote. 

Following demonstrations by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the board decided they wanted to remove the statue, along with the King Edward Street Plaque.

However an independent commission into the statue will be set up before any action is taken.  

The college said in a statement: ‘The Governing Body of Oriel College has voted to launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue. 

‘They also expressed their wish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes and the King Edward Street Plaque. This is what they intend to convey to the Independent Commission of Inquiry.

‘Both of these decisions were reached after a thoughtful period of debate and reflection and with the full awareness of the impact these decisions are likely to have in Britain and around the world.

‘The Commission will deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st Century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past.’ 

A plaque in honour of Rhodes’s ‘great services’ to the UK on an outside wall of the college facing the street is also due to be removed. In a statement, Oriel College’s 40-strong governing body said it had ‘voted to launch an independent commission of inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue’.

The college said its inquiry, which will take evidence from Rhodes Must Fall supporters as well as historians and former students, will report back by the end of the year.

Oriel College opened its Rhodes Building in 1911 after receiving a £100,000 from the former student, who died in 1902.

A petition with 180,000 signatures calling for the statue to be removed is the latest rallying cry in five years of campaigning.

In 2015 students at the University of Cape Town successfully lobbied to have a statue of the imperialist taken down. However attempts to change the name of Rhodes University were unsuccessful.

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