Museums of Forgetting and Remembering

Guest blog by historian David Alston, contributor to the Remembering 1807 archive

It is now about twenty years since I became interested in the involvement of Scots in the slave plantations of the Caribbean. From my own still limited research I could see that it was extensive. Yet on my first visit to The Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, shortly after it opened in 1998, I noted that there was not a single reference to slavery, the slave trade, or slave-worked plantations. While migration from Ireland to Scotland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was deemed to be important, with a whole gallery devoted to the ‘movement of peoples’, the involvement of Scots in the forced migration of twelve million Africans to the Caribbean and North America did not merit one word. How could a national institution, with all the benefits of modern scholarship, not notice this?

Later, an incisive critique by Dr Sheila Watson helpfully placed this failing in the wider context of the Museum’s approach. She has described how it was conceived as: ‘. . . in effect the first nationalistic museum for Scotland in that it sets out to tell Scotland’s story over the centuries and thus positions it as an independent nation within the Union . . . Originally, the curators had expected that the collections would lead the story. However, during its planning stage the curators were told to make the collections fit the narrative – the story of the Scots people over time’.

What was wrong with the ‘story’ should have been apparent when one looked at the sections which dealt with the role of Scots in the British Empire. There was a reference to a ‘profound influence’ of Scots in East Africa but, as Watson said, ‘we may assume from the tone of the text, and the reference to “medical work and education”, [that] was understood by the Scots to be entirely positive’. When the Museum opened the journalist Ian Jack, writing in The Independent newspaper, concluded that: ‘If a museum of England imitated the Edinburgh Museum’s treatment of Empire . . . there would be a lynch mob at the gates.’

The bi-centenary of the abolition of the African slave trade in 2007 was, then, an important opportunity for Scotland to ‘Remember 1807’ and reassess its historic involvement with slavery. The response can politely be described as muted. To appreciate just how muted, see Cait Gillespie’s 2017 master’s thesis The end of amnesia? Scotland’s response to the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade and the quest for social justice. I’m proud to have been responsible for Cromarty Courthouse Museum’s Slaves & Highlanders, which Cait describes as a ‘seemingly simple but subversive exhibition’ and one of a few ‘high quality pieces of work [in Scotland] that engage[d] with public audiences in diverse and important ways’. But there were only a few others – and the question mark in Cait’s title is important.



Move on to 2013 when The Museum of Scotland hosted the exhibition ‘Vikings!’ with 500 objects from the collections of the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. There were still more references to slavery in the Viking world than in the whole of the ‘story of Scotland’ in the rest of the Museum, where there had been some minor changes implemented through a policy described as ‘a careful adjustment of displays rather than root-and-branch revisionism’. I’m not sure why getting things right should be described as revisionism . . . And today, almost twenty years on from the opening of The Museum of Scotland, Cait Gillespie’s conclusion is still that ‘the onus now lies on Scotland’s major national institutions to follow suit and bring forth new creative responses’.

I recently visited another museum, five minutes’ walk from The Museum of Scotland. Surgeons’ Hall Museums – whose collections make the institution one of the oldest museums in Scotland – reopened in 2015 after a major £4.4 million Heritage Lottery Funded redevelopment project. Surgeons’ Hall reflects an important part of the history of Edinburgh and Scotland. The Museums were initially established as a medical teaching resource and between 1750 and 1800 over 85% of medical graduates in Britain were trained in Scottish universities. (Think about that for a moment.) Only a fraction of them could find employment in Scotland and the expatriate Scottish doctor became a familiar figure throughout the Empire.

But these familiar figures in the Empire included both surgeons on slaving ships (a legal requirement from 1788) and plantation doctors, employed to keep slaves labouring for a long as possible. These could be lucrative positions and many doctors earned even more by becoming slave owners themselves. As one might expect, a third or more of ship surgeons and plantation doctors were Scots. And, as one might also expect, nothing of this is reflected in the exhibitions in the Surgeons’ Hall Museums.

For inspiration I turn to the son of two Glaswegian doctors – and through him to Germany. Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery for 15 years from 1987, then of the British Museum until 2015, and now founding director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. MacGregor has summed it up: ‘Britain forgets its past. Germany confronts it’. To which I would add, ‘And Scotland forgets even more’. Importantly MacGregor, and German museums, offers us a vision of a way forward:

The great thing a museum can do is allow us to look at the world as if through other eyes . . .   At one level it is that very simple idea: ‘you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free’. I do believe that the more truths you can glimpse and lay hold of, even if they are shifting and contradictory, the better chance of freedom you probably have.

A better Museum of Scotland would allow us to glimpse the truth by seeing Scots through the eyes of enslaved Africans, indentured Indian labourers, and the many indigenous peoples who had every right, as Hamish Henderson put it, to ‘curse Scotland the Brave’. By failing to confront its imperial past, and its involvement with slavery, Scotland will remain trapped by that past. It is the truth, and not a spurious ‘story of Scotland’, that can make us free.







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