HISTORIANS and academics have long pondered over Scotland’s “collective amnesia” when it comes to the nation’s colonial history and involvement in transatlantic slavery.

While there have been signs in recent times that this lack of awareness is beginning to be addressed, it remains an often uncomfortable and complicated journey of rediscovery and coming to terms with this chapter of our past.

Glasgow, like much of Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries, grew rich from the profits of tobacco, sugar and other goods produced by enslaved workers in the plantations of America and the West Indies.

The financial wealth reaped is still visible throughout the city, from the grandeur of its buildings to streets that bear the names of tobacco lords (Glassford, Oswald, Cochrane, Wilson, Dunlop, Buchanan and Ingram) and the places (Jamaica, Virginia and Tobago) where they made their money.

Without slavery, Glasgow as we know it wouldn’t exist today. So how to address this legacy? According to Duncan Dornan, head of museums and collections at Glasgow Life, it will be a process where transparency is imperative.

“It is important for people to feel that museums are absolutely honest about their collections and about how they explain and interpret those,” he says. “That is not about covering something up or taking one particular perspective that happens to be comfortable.

READ MORE: Four objects of slavery and empire in the Glasgow Museums' collection

“It is about establishing what the facts were and helping people to understand them. It is important not to be apologist for this period but to explain what happened so people can understand it in context.”

Museums Galleries Scotland is co-ordinating a national consultation in collaboration with Glasgow Life. The Scottish Government announced in September it would sponsor an independent expert group to recommend how existing and future museum collections can better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of our colonial and slavery history.

This autumn saw Glasgow Museums appoint its first dedicated curator of legacies of slavery and empire, Miles Greenwood, whose remit will include developing a programme of community engagement and collaborative research.

His goal is to help reshape understandings of the connections between the slave trade, colonialism and their contemporary legacies. This includes curating new displays that demonstrate the impact slavery and empire had across the entire city.

Greenwood, whose previous role was in visitor studies at Paisley Museum, will also work with local communities to develop a public programme of talks, tours and activities.

HeraldScotland: Miles Greenwood, curator of legacies of slavery and empire for Glasgow Museums. He is photographed at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. Picture: Colin Mearns/The HeraldMiles Greenwood, curator of legacies of slavery and empire for Glasgow Museums. He is photographed at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow. Picture: Colin Mearns/The Herald

When we speak in early November – his first interview since taking the job – Greenwood has been in post for a little over month. Yet, if he is feeling daunted by the gargantuan task that lies ahead, it doesn’t show.

At this stage, it is difficult to put a definitive figure on the number of objects within the collections that might relate to or come under the umbrella of slavery and empire. Over the next two years, Greenwood will endeavour to identify key pieces and the stories behind them.

Born in Manchester and raised in Stockport, Greenwood points out that his own heritage is tied to enslavement, colonialism, and migration. “I suppose in many ways I’m a child of empire,” he says.

“My mum’s family are from Jamaica – my grandparents came over as part of the Windrush Generation. My step mum is Indian-Malaysian, and my partner is Chinese-Malaysian. So, there is all this heritage of former British colonies that coalesces around me.”

His passion for history began in childhood. “From so young I can’t even remember,” says Greenwood. “Ancient history was the initial spark. There is so much to imagine and interpret in your own mind. I was gripped by antiquity.

READ MORE: Four objects of slavery and empire in the Glasgow Museums' collection

“As I grew older, I became more broadly interested in history. My grandma, if I ever expressed an interest in a subject, she would get me books and talk to me about it. Having that sort of support definitely grew my interest, turned it into a passion and led to me pursuing this career.”

Greenwood went on to gain a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Heritage Studies from Newcastle University. After graduating, he led learning and outreach programmes, including Black History workshops with secondary school pupils in Manchester.

While at Paisley Museum, Greenwood created a Black History tour exploring the town’s links to the slave trade. He has also undertaken research on behalf of the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights.

Greenwood became aware of Scotland’s links to colonialism and slavery through his grandparents. “Mostly because on my mother’s side our paternal name is Scottish, and my granddad used to always say he had Scottish ancestry.

“I think anyone who has connections to Jamaica has an idea that Scotland was there and not in a way that was beneficial to the black people of Jamaica.”

After moving to Scotland, Greenwood began to delve deeper into that history. This included visiting the building where some of Glasgow Museums’ most famous collections are housed – the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) – which is another city landmark with origins tied to the slave trade.

HeraldScotland: Stones Steeped In History at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow. Picture: Copyright © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries CollectionsStones Steeped In History at the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) in Glasgow. Picture: Copyright © CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collections

It was built in 1777 as a mansion for William Cunninghame of Lainshaw, a wealthy tobacco lord. The building’s first commercial purpose was as a bank some 40 years later, before becoming Glasgow’s Royal Exchange in 1827.

Here, for more than a century, businessman gathered to trade cotton, sugar, coal and iron. Many, like Exchange founder James Ewing of Strathleven, owned or profited from the labour of enslaved people on the sugar and tobacco plantations in the American colonies and West Indies.

Glasgow Corporation purchased the building in 1954. It has been home to GoMA since 1996 and three years ago, Glasgow Museums installed Stones Steeped In History, a permanent display charting the story of the site from Cunninghame’s commission to the present day.

Exhibits like this, says Greenwood, alongside that of the Blockade Runners display at Riverside Museum which focuses on the role of Glasgow and Clyde-built steamers in the American Civil War of 1861-1865, are steps in the right direction.

Yet, there is much still to be done. Greenwood sees it as vital to give a platform to previously unheard voices. “I have my own interests and connections to these histories – but it is not just my story to tell and it is not just Glasgow Museums’ story,” he says.

“I’m looking at ways we can work with a range of voices to reveal these truths and find stories that empower us. Stories that make us think about the world as we experience it today and amplify them.”

This summer saw Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the UK, sparked by the death of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis who was killed in police custody.

READ MORE: Four objects of slavery and empire in the Glasgow Museums' collection

Protestors tore down a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and threw it into the harbour. In Edinburgh, the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square with its statue of Henry Dundas, a politician who delayed the end of the slave trade, was graffitied.

“I think all the attention which is focused on the public realm – such as statues and heritage locations – in many ways that is a good thing because it does make people more aware of the history,” says Greenwood.

“The debates around Dundas and Colston have done more to educate than the actual statues ever did. Having people more aware of those debates will benefit us because when we come to talking about these histories, what we are trying to do is tell the truth about some of our collections.

“I think, for me, what the situation in Bristol showed us is how important it is for institutions to listen to the people they claim to serve. That goes for museums as well and from our perspective is why consultation is key to this.”

That includes dispelling any lingering myths about Scotland’s involvement in slavery and empire. “We want to tell the truth about history,” he says.

“Although I think people are coming to terms with the fact that Scotland was heavily involved in the slave trade and in the British Empire and had disproportionate impact in those areas, there is still an idea that exists for some people that colonialism and slavery was an English thing, and it wasn’t Scotland’s problem.

“For Scotland to move forward as a nation, it has to have an honest discussion and reflection on its own past.”

Greenwood acknowledges that some Scots may be ill at ease or unsure how to open up that conversation. “These histories produce all kinds of emotions because it is a very emotive subject,” he says. “In the slave trade more than 12 million people were transported across the Atlantic. The idea that Scots weren’t involved in that has been a very convenient myth for a long period of time.

“To begin to dismantle that can be difficult but, so far, most people who I come across are willing to do that and recognise why it is important, which is a good starting point. We have to take that will to tell those truths and do it justice from our perspective.”

HeraldScotland: Protesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. Picture: Ben Birchall/PAProtesters throw a statue of slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA

It is a sentiment echoed by Duncan Dornan as he speaks about the challenges. He suggests that unlike in Liverpool, for example, where the International Slavery Museum serves as a potent reminder, some Scots may find it difficult to make a tangible link.

“In Scotland, the connection with slavery was at arm’s length,” he says. “In Liverpool, the museum actually sits on the docks where slaves captured in Africa were transported – there is a real physical connection.

“We were clearly much more remote from it so you don’t have that physical location where you can say, ‘this is the point that this happened’.

“But commercially, we were very heavily involved, and the reparations paid on the abolition of slavery, a substantial amount went to Glasgow as the headquarters of all of these businesses.”

However, it is pertinent, says Dornan, to recognise this as a Scotland-wide issue, not one which relates only to Glasgow.

“The whole of Scotland was implicated,” he says. “If Glasgow was the shop window or head office for a lot of this trade, the money was finding its way into the rest of the country and underpinning that massive transformation of Scotland in the 18th and 19th century.”

There have been calls for museums across Europe to return their colonial-era artefacts. It isn’t always as straightforward as that, however.

“I think we have to be careful in deciding the fate of objects,” Dornan says. “We have to consult with people who were affected by them in the past because if we don’t do that, we are actually just doing another form of patronising colonialism.

“You took the object and then you decide unilaterally when or if you hand it back – that’s not any better than what happened before. Often, in terms of repatriation, people don’t want an object back, they want honesty in the interpretation of the object and where it has ended up.”

Providing that context within a museum collection, says Dornan, can be a powerful tool. “That is why consultation is critical. You have to determine what people actually want, what satisfies them in responding to these issues and what makes them feel justice has been served.”

That’s where Greenwood comes in. His initial term as curator runs for two years and he hopes to be able to help many more people to better understand the lasting impact of slavery and empire, as well as share the often-overlooked perspectives of those affected.

READ MORE: Four objects of slavery and empire in the Glasgow Museums' collection

“It is important for me that, at the end of this, we have worked with people to allow them to tell their stories and offer their perspectives on this history because these legacies have shaped Scotland, the UK and much of the world as we know it today,” he says.

“The make up of our societies, our outlooks, the inequalities that exist and racism are all legacies of colonialism and slavery. Because of that we have to find ways of effectively making those connections between the past, the present and people.

"If I can honestly say we have worked with the people who are most closely affected by this history and allowed them to tell some of these stories on their own terms, that would be an achievement.”

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