Working with the Museum of the Home: Geffrye Must Fall

On 23rd November, I sent this letter to the Museum of Home’s Board of Trustees. I am currently awaiting their response.

Over the summer, there was a public outcry against the Museum of the Home that I need to address (given our planned collaboration). I say this because I believe in a politics of accountability to my wider community; this is the connection that fuels my Black feminist praxis. This grounds my hope in the possibilities of Black women’s home-making in our current political climate.

There was a public consultation regarding removing the statue of Robert Geffrye from the front of the Museum. Over 3000 people attended this meeting, most of whom were in favour of the removal of Geffrye’s statue. Yet a decision was made by 12 people during a Board of Trustees meeting to keep the statue (after receiving a letter from the government’s culture secretary Oliver Dowden).[1] The Board stated:

“The Board takes the view that the Museum should respond to the issues raised by this debate by continuing with its vision of change at a fundamental level by making the Museum’s workforce, creative partners, content and programming more representative and inclusive.”

It is unclear how the Museum’s Board can work towards a vision of change while upholding a statue that valorises a white supremacist enslaver. Yes, the violence of slavery needs to be interrogated: but that violence was only validated through this decision. The Museum’s Board cannot work towards more ‘inclusive’ or ‘representative’ resources while refusing to address the statue as a glorification of the brutal inequalities that inform our world.

I hear and support the community organisers who called for the removal of the statue from the forefront of how the Museum welcomes people into imagining home. Specifically, Toyin Agbetu states:

“I think the Museum’s board is missing the point. Diversifying your workforce and making sure you have true representation across the board – they should be doing that already because it is the right thing to do.

“The statue of Geffrye is on private property, but it is in the public realm and it is causing offence, which is why I argue it should come down, but from an ethical point of view, it is a symbol of slavery. There is no reinterpretation that neutralises the historical facts – we know what the statue represents. […]

For a closed room of individuals, hidden away where we have no access to how the decision has been made, to come to agreeing that a status quo which is currently the subject of global protest is a good thing to maintain, is exactly the definition of institutionalised racism.”

My current project hinges on exploring the dimensions of Black feminist home-making practices; this necessarily foregrounds the historical and ongoing exploitation and marginalisation of Black women in our current political climate. And yet the Board chose to uphold a statue over other(ed) Black voices. I must ask: what concrete funds and resources are the Museum’s Board dedicating to addressing the criticisms that Agbetu (and many other organisers) have raised?

It is important that the labour of addressing these critiques is done by individuals working in the institutions built through the exploitation of Black people. It is also vital that resources are directed to local Black community organisers that have already been raising these critiques (during the public consultation and after); as they were the ones who were disregarded, their concerns need to be addressed first and foremost.

I am ready to honour the commitments that I made in my initial Leverhulme application:

  • A consultation report on how race and Empire could be foregrounded in the period rooms
  • Using archival material from the Museum’s period rooms to work on creative collaborative pieces that foreground the British grammar of race

That being said, I am conscious of my own role in Agbetu’s critique of the ‘closed room of individuals, hidden away where we have no access to how the decision has been made’. Before continuing this collaboration, I would need assurance that:

  1. The Museum’s Board have a plan that takes immediate and measurable action (including redirecting funds and resources) to address the criticisms Black community organisers have raised around the removal of the statue.
  2. Future updates about my collaboration with the Museum need to happen on a publicly accessible platform.
  3. This statement should be published on the Museum of Home’s website.

It is particularly important to me that these conversations continue to happen on publicly accessible platforms. This is part of acknowledging a need to move away from systems that enable a ‘closed room of individuals’ to outvote the majority opinion (that was expressed through the public consultation). It is vital that the Museum’s Board illustrates their willingness to listen to Black people who point to the violent contradictions that inform the Museum.

[1] It is also worth noting that the first four members – including the Chair – are appointed by the government’s culture secretary; the rest of the Board is appointed by the original four. As @JermainJackman pointed out on Twitter, there are no Black members of the Board. The Board’s make-up and decisions are reflective of the UK government’s attempts to undermine and criminalise schools and teachers that want to address structural inequalities (e.g. through targeting scholars teaching about anti-capitalism, white privilege, Critical Race Theory).

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