Decolonising Heritage

7 years Heritage logo on a starry background: Sharing Knowledge, Building Partnerships, Growing Expertise

As part of this week’s #TORCHGoesDigital theme of Decolonisation, Dr Oliver Cox highlights a range of projects and activities supported by the Heritage Partnerships Team and Dr Hanna Smyth explores work focused on colonial collections by the National Trust Partnership


The recent decision by Oriel College to begin the legal process to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from the façade of one of their college buildings on Oxford’s High Street highlights the extent to which the global conversations about decolonisation and Black Lives Matter also have deep roots and resonances within Oxford’s architecture and history.  


From 2018 onwards, the Heritage Seed Fund has enabled and supported a range of international projects that have aimed to decolonise heritage sites, open up new research avenues, and support the development of partnerships between academics and heritage organisations around the world.  


Professor Dan Hicks, whose recent #MuseumsUnlocked Twitter campaign has been a lockdown hit, was awarded funding to support ‘African Cultural Heritage in British Museums: Widening the Dialogue’. The Heritage Seed Fund support will cover travel and subsistence for two speakers from continental Europe to attend three workshops bringing together curators in UK regional museums with African institutions and communities. Workshop topics are planned to include Benin 1897, spoils of war in Africa from Sudan to South Africa, and African archaeological collections from Egypt to Zimbabwe.   


Marenka Odlum-Thompson and Dr Ashley Coutu’s Heritage Seed Fund project, ‘Resisting Silence: Revealing everyday lives of plantations through material, oral, and archival histories’ pivots across the Atlantic to explore the archaeological remnants of the transatlantic slave trade. Originally scheduled for completion by Summer 2020 and now delayed due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, ‘Resisting Silence’ is a collaborative and interdisciplinary project, involving an archaeological survey of the Anse Mahaut plantation on the island of St. Lucia, which during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries produced sugar using enslaved labour. In collaboration with the St. Lucia Archaeological and Historical Society, the project seeks to explore the lives of the enslaved on Anse Mahaut through an archaeological and historical investigation of the estate. Resisting Silence, will partner with St. Lucian volunteers in this endeavour, so that the project is inclusive and is enhanced by local knowledge. The project focuses on the lives of the enslaved, beyond slavery, it seeks to understand and reconstruct the nuances of plantation life and see the people behind the commodity.  


Dr Jacopo Gnisci’s project, focusing on Ethiopic and Eritrean collections in the Bodleian looks to create links between UK institutions and diasporic communities, and has previously been the focus of a TORCH Heritage Programme blog post


Working closely with the Humanities Division’s Training Team, this year’s Heritage Pathway training sessions have explored how notions of authenticity are frequently culturally contingent, and highlighted the importance of not imposing Eurocentric value systems on other heritage sites and collections. The planned study visit to Amsterdam was due to engage with this topic in greater detail, through workshops with the Tropenmuseum and their Research Centre for Material Culture. In addition to Heritage Seed Fund projects and training workshops, the Team has also worked closely with the Careers Service to create paid internship opportunities.


Oxford's National Trust Partnership has also supported various research and interpretation initiatives relating to how the National Trust tells its stories of empire, colonialism, and people of colour. Dr Alexandra Hughes-Johnson's Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, "Women’s Suffrage and Colonialism: New Perspectives and Collaborations", connected academic research on transnational women’s suffrage campaigns within the British Empire to collections, properties and people associated with the National Trust. Dr Kieran Hazzard's Knowledge Exchange Fellowship, "Engaging with the History of the South Asian Collection at Powis Castle", supports the National Trust to reinterpret the collection to address its colonial origins, exploring global history and museology, as well as the histories of colonialism, gender, Anglo-Indian diplomacy, and looting. The National Trust Partnership has also supported 19 Oxford students in placements as curatorial "micro-interns" for the South Asian Collection at Powis project; you can read about Isabelle Riepe's experience as an intern here

TORCH Heritage Programme Homepage

National Trust Partnership Homepage