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Jane Morris

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About Jane Morris

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  1. Jane Morris is the editor of Museums Journal.
  2. Harewood House, the former home of Queen Mary, is not the sort of place that people associate with black history. Landscaped by Capability Brown, and filled with portraits by the likes of Reynolds, it dominates 3,000 acres of the Yorkshire countryside - testimony to the power of the Lascelles family who built it in 1772. It appears to have nothing to do with the history of black British people and everything to do with the white "kings-and-queens" history that most of us know from school. Black History Month begins again tomorrow, but the extent to which black British history remains hidden becomes apparent when you start to ask how houses like Harewood came to be built. The ancestors of the current Viscount Harewood built their fortunes in the Caribbean: by the end of the 18th century they had stakes in 47 sugar plantations and owned thousands of slaves - not something which is impressed upon the 350,000 people who visit the house each year. Few British museums tell the story of black or Asian people in anything but the most cursory fashion. You would find it hard to guess from the Museum of London that there was a black population in London in the 18th century, for example. In 1993 the museum mounted an exhibition called the Peopling of London, but the issues it raised were left for 10 years until the arrival of a director with a South African perspective. In Leeds, with a large black population, the city museums hold important fine art, industrial and natural history collections, but little to reflect the diversity of its people. It's not just a problem confined to museums. Far more children learn about the American civil rights movement than the 1919 riots in Liverpool and South Shields, or the post-war struggle for equality. Far more learn about the Romans than they do about the importance of the transatlantic slave trade to the industrialisation of Britain. Black History Month was conceived in the US in the 1920s and taken up by the UK in the 1980s. It still continues in the US, but the treatment of black, Asian and Native American history has changed radically. Carlos Tortolero, the director of the Mexican Fine Arts Centre Museum in Chicago, calls one-off events and exhibitions "one-night stands" rather than a true commitment to equality. But Lonnie Bunch, the first African American director of the Chicago Historical Society, says that museums have made inroads into the inequalities of displays. It is true that in the US there are substantial collections and permanent displays devoted to the history of black Americans. There are also many more black curators and directors than here, and black trustees of museums, academics and patrons. Last month the Smithsonian opened a new Native American museum in Washington. Its approach is as scholarly as any other Smithsonian institution. But it is far removed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which grouped Native American people alongside its botanical and zoology collections. In the UK there is a growing consensus that much more needs to be done. Numerous books and conferences have called for action over ethnic minority representation. Only this week, the author and broadcaster Mike Phillips led a seminar at the British Library on making more diverse exhibitions. It is hard to find a national or major regional museum director who does not publicly agree. Yet change is painfully slow. Part of the problem may be an in-built conservatism. It has taken more than 20 years to construct the extension at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge that opened this summer, for example. Some of it is about the perspective that curators have: often studying artefacts from an aesthetic point of view. The African galleries at the British Museum demonstrate the beauty of African craftsmanship, but ignore the contested ownership of the Benin bronzes despite the vociferous campaigns of the late Tottenham MP, Bernie Grant. Some of it is an uncertainty about what to do. Black history is still not widely studied at school or university so there are few historians of what is a large and demanding field. Many curators are afraid of causing offence or appearing patronising. As a result, museums seem more comfortable creating small education and outreach projects - or focusing on less contentious subjects such as sport or fashion, like the V&A's current Black British Style. Few museums seem to relish tackling high-profile, risky gallery projects like the Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, or the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery in Liverpool. And some of it is a lack of imagination. A common cry among curators is that there is little to their collections of relevance to black history. Recent reassessment projects at the V&A and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and research emerging from the Museums Association collections inquiry, have proved this not to be the case. In Birmingham, the project has turned up a wealth of material with connections to black British, Asian and African history. There are possibilities raised by telling history from more varied viewpoints. Last year, to coincide with Black History Month 2003, David Lascelles - Viscount Harewood - invited leading academics to a conference at Harewood to discuss adding new interpretation to the house in light of academic research into his family's plantation-owning past. The aim was not some kind of cynical tokenism, nor an attempt to deny the beauty of the house and its collections. If the Harewood scheme goes ahead, it will give an additional dimension, add richness and greater truthfulness to the aristocratic tale that many of us, erroneously, believe we know. http://www.guardian.co.uk/analysis/story/0...1315856,00.html
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