Decolonising the Guildford Collection

July 20, 2020 11:30 AM
By Cllr James Steel

The murder of George Floyd last month at the hands of the US justice system sent visible shockwaves around the world. The act itself was not the only act of its kind, but it highlighted the many deaths and mass injuries suffered by black people in America. It has also acted as a call to action for the injustice suffered by black people in the UK as well. The resulting protests have shone a light not only on the murder of George Floyd but also the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on the BAME community and the deep-rooted inequality and injustice towards the BAME community that is consciously and unconsciously built into our society.

I attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Guildford on the 6th June along with over 800 other Guildford residents. It was powerful to see that even in leafy Surrey there was a build-up of anger and a desire to see a change in the way people of different skin colour are treated in society at large. The best quote from that protest by one of the speakers was "There are 150,000 people living in Guildford (borough), there are not 150,000 people here fighting this injustice". At the same time as the Guildford event, there were protests happening throughout the UK, the most well-reported of these events being those that saw the removal of the statue of black slave owner's Edward Colston from Bristol and Robert Milligan from the London Dockyards.

Cllr James Steel at Guildford MuseumThese two events, coupled with the Black Lives Matters movement, encouraged the Guildford Borough Council leadership to reflect with me on the history surrounding the borough and the types of artefacts we keep, along with the stories they tell. I was already working on and had recently signed off the approval of a new Heritage Strategy for the Heritage Service that had decolonising the collection as an action point. However, after reflecting again, Councillor Caroline Reeves (Council Leader) and I decided to increase the level of importance for this action. Decolonising our collections will ensure increased awareness of our county's colonial past within the context of our growing understanding of the race issues of today within our community.

I'm pleased to announce that the project to decolonise Guildford Borough Council's historic collections will become a top priority for our Heritage Service to achieve within the timespan of the Strategy (2020-2025).

What will this mean in practice?

De-colonising the collection will involve several different elements.

The first would be to look at the current collection we hold and gain an understanding of three issues:

  • where were got it from,
  • how we obtained it,
  • whether we should send it back to its place of origin to be displayed in their museums.

For items that hold significance within Britain's colonial past, there will be write-ups provided explaining how the artefact was obtained and its context within Britain's colonial history. If it's a painting or illustration of a figure of Guildford's past, then a write up on how they were involved in colonial activities will be produced. An example of where this would be done would be a portrait of an individual who through research is known to have been involved in Colonial activities of the time (e.g. slave ownership).

The Decolonisation Project will be part of a range of innovative actions as part of the Heritage Strategy and Heritage Service Forward Plan (2020-2025). These documents will come forward to the Council's Executive for approval in the Autumn.

Decolonising the collection isn't the only thing related to the Black Lives Matter Movement that Caroline and I have been looking to change in my portfolio. We are also beginning discussions on introducing guided walks around Guildford that detail stories of Guildford's BAME past (in conjunction with members of the Guildford BAME community). This will allow residents and visitors to the town to better understand how Guildford has been shaped by its BAME residents over the years.

Cllr James Steel
Guildford Borough Councillor Cllr for Westborough Ward & Lead Councillor for Environment