The Museum of the Home (MotH) was met with a quick backlash today after announcing it is to keep on its building a statue of Sir Robert Geffrye, who made money from the enforced labour and trading of enslaved African people.
The decision was made despite the Museum’s consultation finding the majority of respondents were in favour of the statue being taken down.
Petitioners for the removal called the decision a “kick in the teeth” for the borough, with the Mayor of Hackney voicing his “disappointment” in MotH’s board of trustees, and campaigners calling for a boycott.
Whilst accepting its responsibility to “acknowledge the legacy of colonialism and slavery within our history”, MotH explained in a statement earlier today that it would be “reinterpreting and contextualising the statue where it is, to create a powerful platform for debate about the connection between the buildings and transatlantic slavery”.
The institution also pledged to continue to make its own workforce, creative partners, content and programming more representative and inclusive.
Community educator Toyin Agbetu, a member of the community steering group taking part in the council’s ongoing review into the names of public space in the borough, said: “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.
“This is exactly what led to the statue in Bristol being taken down by people power, when institutional forces ignored the petitions, the voices, the consultations, of everybody saying, ‘Remove it’. The Museum, in doing the same, are showing they have not learned that lesson.
“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.
“No-one who is interested in social justice should go back to the Museum of the Home until they address this travesty of justice. People should make an ethical boycott of the Museum, rather than give moral support to this decision.”
MotH ran a public consultation on what to do with the statue of Geffrye, who donated funds to build the almshouses which house the Museum, in partnership with Hackney Council.
The consultation showed an overall response in favour of its removal, with MotH adding that “feedback showed that what to do with the statue is a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions”.
Along with a commitment to transform the Museum’s make-up in order that people from diverse backgrounds work at all levels throughout it as well as serving on the board of trustees, MotH pledged to share “more diverse and representative stories of home” as part of its work, while acknowledging the pain caused by the connection between its buildings and the slave trade.
It also shared its intention to invite and work with Black artists and the Hackney community to use the statue of slave trade beneficiary Geffrye and the history of the buildings as a “platform for discussion and creative response”, adding: “We will reinterpret the statue honestly and transparently to tell the history of Geffrye’s career and his connections with the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans.”
Local resident Robin Priestley, who started a petition calling for the statue’s removal which attracted over 4,000 signatures, said: “It’s left me wondering why they bothered to have a consultation at all. They even say that the majority of people wanted them to take down the statue.
“The thing that worries me is them saying we’re going to change the way we do our programme or run our museum, but what faith can we have that they are going to do any of that when the first difficult decision they’ve had to make, they’ve balked at it?
“We were never telling them to change history, but to put the statue in the museum. Take it down from pride of place and teach people about this shameful man. Don’t continue to celebrate him on the front of the building.
“I was hoping the consultation would show them that it is not just global outrage, but that local people want it down as well, but they still didn’t do it. They know it’s problematic and causes people harm, but they’ve kept it in place. It’s a kick in the teeth for everyone in Hackney.”
The Town Hall launched a review into the naming of public space in the borough in early June, with Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville welcoming the move from the Sir John Cass Foundation to change its name and those of its buildings.
Cass also profited from the enslavement of African people, with Cassland Road Gardens set to be renamed as the first outcome of the review. MotH changed its own name from the Geffrye Museum last year.
Pointing to the Sir John Cass Foundation’s actions as proof that complex issues such as those presented by Geffrye’s statue can be addressed with “integrity and speed”, Agbetu called on MotH should remove any reference to the Black Lives Matter movement from its website, adding: “If you won’t remove the statue, remove the Black Lives Matter statement, as the two are in contradiction with each other. It is a moral affront to pretend to stand for one and yet refuse to acknowledge the harm caused by the other.”
Mayor Glanville has urged the Museum to “genuinely engage” with the community steering group of which Agbetu is a part as part of their commitment to use the statue to educate visitors on Geffrye’s past, ensuring that the history becomes a “key part” of the learning at MotH when it reopens.
Glanville added: “I am very disappointed by the decision taken by the board of MotH. This was an opportunity to send a very clear message about Hackney’s values and the Museum’s role in our borough at an important time, when people across the world are looking to organisations to make bold statements and reflect the strength of feeling within their communities.
“Many local people will feel very uncomfortable about this decision, especially after so many took the time to respond to the consultation. Residents have made it clear how important they think it is that changes are made, to ensure the borough’s parks and public spaces reflect the borough’s diverse communities.
“We believe that taking meaningful, community-led action is the best way to ensure our shared spaces are welcoming to all and reflect our diverse communities.”
A statement from MotH said: “The Museum has a responsibility to reflect and debate history accurately, and in doing so to confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the Museum buildings.
“As the Museum of the Home – a place to reveal and rethink the ways we live in order to live better together – we will also be addressing, in our galleries and programming, the connections between the British home and exploitative trade, value systems and physical objects, both historically and today.
“On balance the Board has taken the view that the important issues raised should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change, along with better interpretation and conversation around the statue.
“We acknowledge the pain caused by the connections between the Museum buildings and the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans. The Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated a profound need for people and institutions to educate themselves about the legacy of structural racism
“We are committed to reflecting this at the Museum when we reopen as a place to explore the many meanings of home.”