12 October 2021

Decolonisation and the Brutish Empire

Zita discusses the legacy and impact of British colonisation at our cultural institutions and there's 50% off for PCS members on the new book on the subject "The Brutish Museum" by Professor Dan Hicks.

The legacy of colonialism impacts negatively on people from the African and Asian diasporas in the UK today, from the Windrush Scandal to systemic racism, under-representation to racist hate crime, they impact on our life chances and that includes in the labour market. But those legacies are present in statues, artefacts and symbols which devalue us and remind us of historic atrocities committed to our ancestors. This includes the presence of stolen and pillaged artefacts in British institutions – including museums, galleries and other workplaces where PCS members work.

PCS has raised the importance of decolonisation of our workplaces with employers and highlighted the links between those legacies and institutional racism at work impacting on pay, promotion, progression and more.

The debate about decolonisation and legacies of enslavement and empire came to the forefront in the UK in 2020, following the brutal murder of George Floyd in the United States. During a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol, the Colston statue was toppled. This was followed by calls to remove statues of others who had enslaved African people during the transatlantic slave trade or benefited financially during empire.

Recently I spoke at an unofficial tour of the British Museum organised by performance campaign group To BP Or Not to BP?, where we led visitors virtually through the collections to highlight concerns about the ongoing battle for the return of stolen artefacts to their homes and the museum’s continuing sponsorship by fossil fuel firm BP.

I also talked about the links between colonialism which led to many of these stolen items ending up in the British Museum and the treatment of low paid, outsourced black and migrant workers at the museum, including during the pandemic where facilities management workers still had to come to work even when the museum was shut.

A new book, The Brutish Museum, written by Dan Hicks, about the Benin Bronzes, colonial violence and cultural restitution, has recently been published by Pluto Books and PCS members are offered a 50% discount, using code ‘PCS50’. You can order the book online.

The Benin Bronzes were seized in 1897 from what was then Benin, now Edo State in Nigeria, by a British military force. Nigeria wants the bronzes returned and whilst many other institutions across Europe have agreed to return stolen goods, this is not the case where the British Museum is concerned. A government spokesperson has even defended the keeping of the bronzes, with the audacity of suggesting they do not mind "sharing" them with Nigeria.