By Nicola Perugini, Lecturer in International Relations at The University of Edinburgh

Walking with my 15-month-old son out of the children area in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, we passed through an area dedicated to Global Scots who “have made a significant impact across the world through migration to Americas, Australasia, Africa and Asia.” One particular sign caught my attention: “Scottish connections: the British empire created a network of military and trading links stretching the world. For many Scots, the Empire presented a chance to build a career, fulfil a new and better life, and make money.”

Immediately I thought of the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and the opening epigraph in his masterpiece Orientalism: “The East is a career.” Written by Benjamin Disraeli, Said explains that one of the ways in which British and other forms of imperialism naturalized conquest in the so-called Orient was precisely by conceiving it as an acceptable form of career building.

READ MORE: National Museum of Scotland in colonialism row after 'unsettling' exhibition

In the National Museum, the sign continues celebrating the Scottish involvement in settler colonial domination as follows: “High principles and personal ambition motivated colonial administrators, soldiers and settlers.” The visitors are told that “reputations were built on taking personal and professional risks and on the desire to influence and change the society and politics of other countries and peoples.”

As I continued walking with my son, I wondered what kind of high principles motivated the dispossession indigenous people? Why does a national museum choose to frame the history of injustice as one of moral achievements? What are the repercussions of framing the desire to conquer and subjugate other peoples as natural in a national museum? Is this the kind of national reputation that all Scots want to commemorate?

After tweeting a picture with the museum’s sign from my personal account, some interlocutors replied that the text offers an objective reconstruction of ‘what happened.’ More critical tweeters pointed at its problematic nature and the fact that in Scotland, like elsewhere, citizens are not yet ready to have the debate on the problematic heritage of imperialism and colonialism.

Herald View: Our duty to tell the truth about Scots and the Empire

My experience is different. Having arrived as a new lecturer at University of Edinburgh in 2016, I immediately realized that different departments offer courses which problematise colonial and imperial pasts from a critical perspective. Here and in the rest of the UK, important debates are taking place among student groups and faculty about how to enhance the understanding of the national and global history of racism, colonialism, imperialism, and many other forms of discrimination in our curricula.

Students themselves are pushing for this ongoing change, which means that in spite of coming from different backgrounds they are aware of the need to rethink how we discuss and approach the injustices of the past and their relevance for our contemporary political life.

These debates are exceeding the space of the academy and generating broader public conversations in different cultural fields, from literature, to theatre and dance. Public criticism is growing against discourses aimed at presenting the historical experiences of dispossession of large portions of our planet’s population as a murky question.

READ MORE: National Museum of Scotland in colonialism row after 'unsettling' exhibition

It seems, however, that museums, are slow in understanding and taking up this process. This might be related to the fact that they often tend to fossilize the past in the artefacts they display, especially in permanent collections like the one I have visited at the National Museum of Scotland.

Instead of narrating the history of the nation and its imperial relation to the rest of the world as one of linear progress promoted by great men (and only men!), this and other national cultural institutions should acknowledge that decades of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and anti-imperialism have made impossible to look at conquest and domination in any positive light.

Museums, especially when they tell national histories of empires, must be more sensitive to their civic function and make clear steps in the direction of a critique of imperialism and colonialism.