A staff post from Zandra Yeaman, Curator of Discomfort at The Hunterian.
After many years of agitating and campaigning for change within cultural and heritage institutions from the outside, I find myself working on the inside with The Hunterian as their Curator of Discomfort. Since my post has been publicised, many people have been curious and some will ask, What does Curating Discomfort actually mean?
To help create an understanding I want to take you back to 1999 and the Macpherson report. The report was prompted by the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence that sparked a debate about policing and racism.
The report not only highlighted racial discrimination within policing, but institutional racism and inequality in all areas of society. Section 2.19 read, ‘Radical thinking and sustained action are needed in order to tackle it head on, not just in the Police Services of our country, but in all organisations and in particular in the fields of education and family life.’ The report was a time for pause. For education, culture and heritage institutions such as museums to update policy in line with amended legislation but also to explore culture, national heritage and identity.
22 years after Macpherson we find ourselves discussing and exploring these issues once again. Should statues stay or go, should we be renaming our streets and buildings? Why do we not learn about this in school? Do museums need to ‘decolonise? The debate is welcome and there is no doubt this has brought much of Scotland’s history and links to empire and slavery into wider public understanding. However, the real work is not founded on more symbolic gestures but rather on finally addressing the legacy itself.
In Scotland, the personal and specific historical contexts belonging to people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent link to empire, transatlantic slavery, colonialism and migration, each of which have an extensive impact on Scotland’s economic, demographic, environmental, cultural and social development. Despite this, the histories of these communities are not acknowledged and represented as well as they should be within history, heritage, arts and culture work in Scotland today.
One of the ways forward is to ensure that everyone understands what we mean by this legacy. To do this we need to acknowledge that the concept of different ‘races’ and ‘racial groups’ and the false notions of racial superiority developed during the 18th, 19th and early 20th century are not attitudes that have been left in the past. These ideologies were used to justify the buying and selling of human beings, genocide, looting and plundering. To validate these abhorrent acts an ideology had to be created and this was developed and influenced the social attitudes of the time.
In the present day, these notions still have an influence in all areas of life in Scotland to some degree, from social attitudes, to the way organisations are run, permitting inequalities for Black and minority ethnic people to continue over generations. This is known as ‘structural racism’. It can be seen on a personal level in people’s attitudes and behaviours; on a social level in how people talk to each other and make decisions; and on an institutional level in how organisations conduct their business (‘institutional racism’).
Most people now recognise that racist attitudes and language are unacceptable, but our cultural heritage sites are only now recognising they are not neutral and that for years they have been complicit in perpetuating the ideologies of the previous centuries. That they set a comfortable narrative that has omitted Scotland’s complicity and direct involvement in slavery and colonialism. Therefore, re-writing this narrative will be a long process which will generate discomfort, but will also reveal a more truthful rendering of the past.
Curating Discomfort is looking at ways outside of traditional museum authority to explore the interpretation of contested collections and to design and deliver a series of museum interventions that takes the museum out of the institutional comfort zone. Exploring white supremacy as an economic and cultural system in which white western ideals control the power of the text, the material resources and ideas of cultural superiority.
Discomfort is necessary for genuine change. Addressing the legacy is neither only about debating what we do with the statues honouring the people who perpetuated a racist ideology, nor is it redecorating the structures built from the proceeds of the transatlantic and empire trades. Addressing the legacy is dismantling the structural (and institutional) racism that is perpetuated today and transforming comfortable narratives to include the uncomfortable unvarnished truth.
Projects such as Curating Discomfort will not change things overnight. As the Macpherson report noted, radical thinking needs to be accompanied by sustained action. What we need to do is to collaborate with anti-racist activists, communities, academics, heritage institutions and heritage professionals, to find a way to build a bridge of trust that is strong enough to bear the weight of the truth we are trying it deliver.