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Contested heritage: art, empire and monuments in Leeds

Since the #rhodesmustfall protest movement began in 2015, there has been an increase in the number of campaigns to relocate, remove, and destroy monuments commemorating British imperialists. In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a new wave of critical engagement with imperialist ideology and cultural heritage. This came to a head in the UK on 7 June 2020, when the nineteenth-century statue of seventeenth-century slaver and philanthropist Edward Colston was toppled from its pedestal during an anti-racism protest. As a result, dozens of arts organisations and local authorities across the country began to reflect on how imperialism had shaped their collections, public spaces and working practices.

In a recent Quality Research - Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF-QR) project based in the Centre for Research in Visual Culture, Dr Rebecca Senior, a Henry Moore Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow, created a series of resources to support institutions grappling with legacies of colonialism by engaging with recent debates over contested art in the UK. This work focused on the city of Leeds. As the largest local authority museum service in the UK, Leeds Museums and Galleries manages nine sites across the city and has a collection of over 1.3 million objects. A focus of Leeds Museums and Galleries has been to critically engage with its collection to support learning initiatives around the British empire. In a parallel development, Leeds City Council announced a city-wide review into its statues and monuments, which aimed to interrogate and understand the ways in which communities engaged with the statues in the public realm. In response to these initiatives, Dr Rebecca Senior drew from her own research on visual cultures of imperialism and collaborated with new partners to develop two new, interconnected resources with the aim to widen the understanding of empire and art in Leeds.

Art and Empire in Leeds is a responsive digital learning resource on art and empire that interrogates objects from Leeds Museums and Galleries collections. Developed in consultation with Rebecca Wade, a local public historian and Izzy Bartley, LMG Digital Learning Officer, the resource uses archival material from the UCL Legacies of British Slave Ownership database and art historical methods, such as biography, material, style, and period to analyse objects with imperial connections. It is designed to accommodate a range of learning abilities (KS2 to KS4) and is broken down into case studies exploring objects from the collection, teachers’ notes and learning activities, a downloadable interpretation template for use in the classroom, an empire glossary and two new digital interactive images, which enable the user to uncover the imperial history of objects from LMG collections. These assets have been designed to offer a myriad of ways for learners, teachers, and the public to broaden their understanding of British imperial history and develop critical interrogative skills by engaging with objects with imperial connections in Leeds Museums and Galleries collections. The resource features activities that can be applied both inside and outside the classroom environment, including tools that encourage learners to critically engage with objects in their surroundings, from shoes to furniture. Initial automatic reporting from Google analytics has demonstrated the popularity of the resource, which has been circulated across LMG learning networks. It has also provided a test-model for the team to develop connections with other cultural organisations wanting to present their collections through digital media resources.

"The events of 2020 drew unprecedented attention to cultural heritage as a space that offers untapped potential for critically engaging with imperial British history. "
Dr Rebecca Senior

The second resource - Commemorating Space: Artist Reflections on Monumentality in Leeds  was designed in response to the council-led report released in October 2020. The report revealed the potential and limitations of such reviews, which seek the opinion of city residents on how individuals are remembered in public space. Working with Corridor8, the leading contemporary art writing journal in the North of England, and a Yorkshire-based designer, the project commissioned five Leeds-based artists to reflect on the broad theme of “monumentality”. As a word that signifies different things to different people, artists were asked to develop their response to the idea of monumentality in the city using three-hundred words as their chosen medium. The result is a new, open access publication that platforms artists as important contributors to the cultural life of the city of Leeds. Their works address complex and interwoven issues of identity fabrication, destruction and manipulation and speak of the significance of place, ghosts, memory and relationships with buildings and spaces in the city. The aim of this work is not to offer some clear answer as to what monumentality is, but to uncover the entanglements and nuances that shape artistic approaches to the notion of monumentality in the city today. Developed into an article for Corridor8’s website (https://corridor8.co.uk/article/commemorative-space-artist-reflections-on-monumentality-in-leeds/) the publication has circulated across national and international networks. This model presents an opportunity for councils across the country to support contemporary artists and critically engage with their civic spaces in new, though provoking ways. The Commemorative Space series has the potential to be developed into a nation-wide publication, which the team are exploring through the pursuit of additional funding.

While debates continue to rage over the future of monuments to imperialists, colonisers, enslavers and white supremacists across the world, there is no doubt that the events of 2020 drew unprecedented attention to cultural heritage as a space that offers untapped potential for critically engaging with imperial British history. Addressing legacies of imperialism in Britain is an enormous, multifaceted and contentious initiative. This short, internally funded IPE project enabled us to trial new ways to address challenges facing cultural and heritage organisations and local authorities who want to critically engage with art and imperial history in the UK. 

Dr Rebecca Senior

Dr Rebecca Senior is an art historian specialising in visual cultures of violence, monuments, sculpture and material histories.

Institute for Policy and Engagement

This blog appears as part of the Institute for Policy and Engagement's Making a Difference blog series.

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