The Museum of the Home (MOTH) was lit up by Hackney Stand Up To Racism’s protest against the retention of slaver Robert Geffrye’s statue on Friday, after campaigners used a projector to illuminate the front of the building with their demands and images illustrating the horrors of the slave trade.
The protest, supported by Cllrs Soraya Adejare and Yvonne Maxwell as well as equalities chief Cllr Carole Williams, was the fourth of its kind in opposition to the statue, which MOTH’s board of trustees opted to keep in place despite a consultation overwhelmingly calling for the statue to be taken down.
After it emerged that MOTH was subject to government lobbying to retain the statue of Geffrye, with culture secretary Oliver Dowden reminding the institution of its status as a recipient of government funds, MOTH director Sonia Solicari told a gathering of MPs in October that her institution “should ideally be free to act with integrity and to act in the best interests of its beneficiaries”.
Addressing protesters, who first held their fists in the air in a minute’s silence in solidarity with migrant families who have died crossing the English Channel, Cllr Williams said: “[The board of this Museum] want to invest in the future, inspire people from Hackney and across London, to think about the home, and what home means.
“What they haven’t taken into consideration or thought about, is that Sir Robert Geffrye ripped millions of people away from their homes. From their families, their lives. He denied them the right of a home. And yet here they are asking us to be inspired and to consider what home means.
“I’ve got a question for the board. I want them to commit to the people of Hackney, the thousands who responded to the consultation and the hundreds of thousands who they want to continue to walk through this door. I want them to commit to telling the truth about this man, the blood that he has on his hands, and what he did with the bodies and lives of Black Africans that he stole and he traded.
“The blood that you see dripping down the Museum and on the hands of the statue is not just symbolism. It’s reality. Before blood was daubed on that statue, there was blood on the hands of Sir Robert Geffrye.”
Police launched an investigation last month after the grounds of the Museum were broken into and red paint applied to the hands of the statue.
Williams went on to point to the 3,000 journeys as part of the slave trade that started in London, adding that Britain transported 3.1 million lives, of whom only 2.7m survived the journey, going on to argue that the almshouses constructed with Geffrye’s funds were a way of “appeasing his own guilt”, decrying the fact that many of those walking through the Museum’s gates and under his statue did so without knowing his history.
Projections on the front of the building included statements such as “Hackney Has Spoken” and “Geffrye Must Fall,” as well as “Stand Up To Racism” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Geffrye was part-owner of the slave ship China Merchant, invested in the forced labour and trade of enslaved African people, and, according to the Museum, very likely derived the majority of his profits from his involvement in the East India Company and Royal African Company.
The statue of Geffrye on the front of the Museum is a replica installed in1912 to replace the original, which was erected to commemorate Geffrye’s legacy in providing funds to build the almshouses for retired workers.
Hackney Labour Party’s George Binette read out a statement to protesters on behalf of Hackney North MP Diane Abbott, saying: “It is a disgrace that the Museum of the Home has still not removed the statue of the slave trader Sir Robert Geffrye. Having changed its name, the Museum board should now take this statue down.
“Geffrye made his fortune trading in slaves. It is quite wrong that a man who made his fortune out of the broken bodies of tens of thouosands of Africans should be glorified in any way, and specifically by this statue.
“The majority of people in Hackney surveyed want this statue taken down. The Museum board should listen to those people and not bend the knee to Tory culture secretary Oliver Dowden and do the right thing by removing this statue of Sir Robert Geffrye.”
Of the 2,187 respondents to the Museum’s consultation, 71 per cent voted to take the statue down, with 29 per cent saying to leave it up. Four per cent did not respond to the question.
The consultation also tracked how the statue made respondents feel, with the three key themes finding that people thought it sent out “the wrong message” by celebrating and giving prominence to Geffrye; that there is “no place for it”, the statue is “not acceptable” and to remove it; and that the Museum’s benefactor “made money from others’ suffering [and that the statue] commemorates the slave trade”.
A spokesperson for MOTH declined to comment on the most recent protest, but said in October: “Since the Museum of the Home announced the board’s decision to keep and explain the statue of Robert Geffrye in its current position, the response from the public and Museum partners has caused the Board to reflect and discuss the decision further.
“The Museum held a public consultation to help inform the Board’s decision-making process. The feedback from the consultation was one of several factors considered by the board when they made their original decision.
“The online consultation was designed as an easy, accessible way for as many people as possible, particularly local residents, to have their say on this important issue. There was a wide range of responses and suggestions in the consultation, including how the Museum should present the historic connection between the buildings and Robert Geffrye.
“The board and Museum team are continuing to review and discuss the response with community, creative and funding partners and are exploring a number of options for the statue that are curatorially best suited to the Museum and its communities.”