We must confront racist history of UK parliament's art, says curator

Exclusive: Officials looking again at collection of 9,000 pieces in light of BLM protests

The curator of parliament’s extensive art collection has acknowledged that many artefacts that adorn the plinths and corridors of Westminster have a “racist history” and were bought with slave-owning and colonial wealth.

Melissa Hamnett, who is also the head of heritage collections in the Palace of Westminster, said that officials and parliamentarians were attempting to re-evaluate how to present the UK’s involvement in exploitation whilst commissioning new artworks that portray black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and female MPs.

She spoke to the Guardian as an intense debate raged over statues portraying former colonial leaders following the removal of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists. Oriel College, Oxford voted this week to take down a statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes.

Hamnett, who took up her role last year, said the parliamentary authorities were looking again at the collection of more than 9,000 artefacts in light of the BLM movement and wanted to be open about the UK’s links to exploitative and cruel practices.

“The British empire is part of our story and we have to recognise that many of our collections have a racist history. Let’s be honest about that colonial and imperial past and also look at the slave-owning wealth that endowed some of the artefacts,” she said.

The highly decorative lobbies of the Palace of Westminster, which are open to the public, are dominated by 18th- and 19th-century depictions of powerful politicians, many of whom had close connections to the slave trade.

Those links were exposed several years ago by University College London. Researchers showed that 469 MPs had profited from and been compensated for their links to the trade in human beings, and dozens of those feature in the artwork around parliament.

Statue of William Gladstone in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament.
Statue of William Gladstone in the Central Lobby of the Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Velomorvah/Alamy Stock Photo

Prime ministers whose families profited from slavery included Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the modern police force, and William Gladstone, who was similarly dependent on financial support from his family. His father, John Gladstone, was one of the largest slave owners in the British West Indies. Both Peel and Gladstone are portrayed dozens of times in paintings and statues in Westminster.

Many “absentee” plantation owners and merchants involved in the slave trade rose to high office in the UK and fought against abolition.

William Beckford, the owner of a 22,000-acre estate in Jamaica, was twice lord mayor of London and, in the mid to late 1700s, was one of 50 MPs in parliament who represented the slave plantations. An oil painting of Beckford hangs in a members-only room in Westminster.

William Alexander Mackinnon, the Tory MP for Dunwich, features in an oil painting from the collection, of a debate from 1860. His family was given compensation following the abolition of slavery, for profits lost on Mackinnon’s estate in Antigua.

While there has been an increase in the number of paintings and photographs portraying BAME politicians, including the former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and the late Labour MP Bernie Grant, many of these hang in Portcullis House, the modern building across the road from the Palace of Westminster.

Of 300 statues on the parliamentary estate, just two are of BAME people: a bust of Learie Constantine, the first black peer and a West Indies cricketer, which is on loan from another collection, and a recently commissioned bust of the 18th-century writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, who was enslaved in his early life.

A portrait of William Beckford which hangs in a members only room.
A portrait of William Beckford which hangs in a members only room. Photograph: Parliamentary Art Collection

Rather than shy away from the links to slavery, parliament should find new ways of explaining the bloody truth of that period to visitors, Hamnett said.

“Nearly all the parliamentary collection has this very definitive association with the building and its decorative history of Augustus Pugin, Charles Barry and a fine arts commission. That is part of the history we have to tell and explain why the building looks the way it looks today,” she said.

“We can’t change history; portraits reflect 19th-century parliamentarians at a time when parliament was not diverse at all.”

Parliament was exploring new ways of telling stories to the public, she said, including an expansion of the use of audio, mobile technology and QR codes. She said that visitors might be able to use smartphones to take them on a trail that would explain former MPs’ links to Britain’s exploitative past.

“We are constrained by how much additional context we can display alongside the art works because of the space and because this is a working building,” she said.

Asked whether parliament should consider removing some of the statues and paintings that glorified people who profited from a barbaric trade in humans, Hamnett said that decision would be taken on a “case-by-case basis” by politicians on the Speaker’s advisory committee on works of art.

Hywel Williams, the Plaid Cymru chair of the committee, which is made up of 11 MPs, said that parliament faced a particularly difficult task if it began removing long-dead leaders who were involved in cruel practices.

“You queue up to get in [to parliament] and you stand next to Oliver Cromwell’s statue. The dilemma we have is a collection which is full of people with skeletons in the cupboard. But you don’t defeat the past by removing its symbols; you use them for future reference,” he said.


Rajeev Syal

The GuardianTramp

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