Our colonial legacy

Leeds Museums and Galleries recognises that key aspects of the UK’s history are connected to the relationship with enslaved and colonised people and places across the world.

Many objects in our collection were acquired during the 1700s to the mid-1900s. This was a period of immense change in parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, due to the impact of European colonial powers such as Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, all seeking to expand their areas of control. This led to unequal power relations with the people they encountered and was a time when many problematic views and attitudes regarding other cultures were formed.

Addressing and challenging this legacy is important to ensure the collection remains relevant to the people of Leeds now. It is important to staff across the service and to many aspects of our work. Our aim is to understand these relationships and continually question our assumptions, working practices, and how we present historical narratives to our audiences.

Collections Development

Our collections development policy is available to view online, and includes our approach to repatriation and restitution.

We continue to

  • Support physical and intellectual access to collections and consider restitution or repatriation.
  • Advocate collecting in a collaborative, non-exploitative way.
  • Work with consultants and volunteers locally, nationally and internationally to re-examine collections, making historic and present-day inequality visible, and acknowledge that people will have a range of perspectives related to our collections.
  • Promote a more diverse volunteer base and workforce that better reflects the people of our city.
  • Advance our knowledge, question our approach, use of language and presentation, and provide an impetus to re-assess our collections through an internal colonial histories working group.

African collections project

In 2021 and 2022 Leeds Museums and Galleries will be taking part in Devolving Restitution: African Collections in UK Museums Beyond London supported by Open Society Foundations, Oxford University and Art Fund.

The project will enable us to develop our links with African communities in Leeds and Yorkshire and to undertake provenance research on our extensive collections from sub-Saharan Africa, improving its documentation and staff knowledge on the subject. The project may also encourage new dialogues with African claimants with a focus on decolonisation and restitution.

Black and white photo of a white man smiling next to a museum display of African figurines.

W.E. Nicolson, Leeds’ first ethnographic curator who worked in Nigeria as a colonial officer

Understanding British Portraits

Our Assistant curator of Fine Art (Works on Paper) is currently working on a project re-examining a coloured chalk drawing by the Leeds-born artist Phil May (1864–1903) from three different perspectives: the sitter, the artist and the curator. When this work was created it was given the racist title ‘A Negress’ (1879-1903).

As a result of this Fellowship, a highlighted display of Phil May’s ‘Lady in a Hat’ (working title) with new audio interpretation will be created and a series of workshops for key youth and community groups will be delivered.

A blue, red and charcoal drawing of a black woman wearing a hat

Phil May’s ‘Lady in a Hat’ (working title) (1879-1903)

Collections data

Our collections database is where we store all the information we know about each of our 1.3 million objects. All of the stories that we tell in our galleries and online rely on the information written in these records.

Our collections team are currently working through each object record, adding information and warning flags to objects to make sure that the stories we are telling now and in the future are as complete and honest as possible. This work is ongoing.

So far, 135 objects have been flagged as controversial or racially offensive. We’ve also grouped objects together under themes like Black History and Enslavement to help us find records and links between them easily. If flagged objects are to be shown in exhibitions, or shared by us online, they will be done so with sensitivity and with respect to their context.

Decolonising the curriculum

We continue to work with multiple schools on in-depth curriculum planning, with a focus on developing cultural learning and telling diverse stories. This means that pupils in Leeds are being told whole, diverse stories across the primary curriculum. These stories are relevant in their school and make sense in their locality. They also ground them in their city and illustrate their diverse heritages.

We manage MyLearning, a website offering free learning resources from arts, cultural and heritage organisations. MyLearning continues to add to its Leeds: Empire and Colonialism theme in the Leeds Curriculum, which currently contains nine stories.

Head of Learning and Access, Kate Fellows, has written a blog about the Decolonising the curriculum project. You can read it, and others about our colonial histories work, by clicking the button below.

A teacher is picking up and talking about some museum objects on a table. The children sitting around the table look very interested.

Ancient Worlds gallery consultation

The Ancient Worlds gallery at Leeds City Museum will soon be the focus of a consultation project with a panel of volunteers from local communities.

The gallery tells stories around the museum’s overseas archaeology collection, and mainly focusses on artefacts from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. We are in the planning stages of thinking about what a new Ancient Worlds gallery might look like, and it’s important to us to include a wide range of voices in the decision making and in the gallery.

Galleries venue hire

Decolonising the natural science collection

Natural Science curator Clare Brown features as a guest on the second series of our Museums n’That podcast.

In the episode, Clare explains how animals come to be in our natural science collection, and why dealing with the histories behind some of our collections can be so complex.

Find out more and explore other episodes of Museums n’That.

Listen, subscribe and leave a review on Apple PodcastsSpotify and all the usual podcast suspects.

This page was last updated on 6 September 2021.

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