A few years ago, a photographer, Jonny Donovan, approached me about a project he was working on, “No Place Like Home”. This led to a wonderful collection that captured the essential, but varied, nature of places people call home. Some of Jonny’s photos are here, including one of my mum, Pat Robbins and the Syrian family she lived with for the last seven years of her life (see below).
A couple of years later, Jonny got in touch to say the Museum of the Home in Hackney wanted to display the photo of mum, with the people we now consider part of our family. We were a bit unsure at first, but in the end, we agreed and were pleased to see the picture getting a wider audience.
The Museum of the Home is a place many people from east London know because we went there on school trips, when it was called the Geffrye Museum, as it was until a rebranding last year. What they never told us was that the place was originally named in honour of a slave trader, whose statue adorns the front of the building to this day.
Black Lives Matter and the toppling of a statue commemorating another slaver into Bristol harbour led to the “Geffrye Must Fall” campaign, backed by a wide range of the local community.
As a family – and with Jonny’s support – we decided we needed to join the campaign by saying to the museum that preserving a statue of a person who made his fortune buying and selling black people was fundamentally at odds with our values and those captured by Jonny’s photo. It would also have horrified my mum, who was a life-long opponent of racism. For what it’s worth, it also contradicted the museum’s various equality statements.
A succession of polite emails and meetings ensued, but over the months, it became clear the museum wasn’t going to move, or even cover-up, the statue. They hid behind legalistic planning arguments, but in reality, the Board of Directors was frightened to challenge the Tory government and its reactionary pursuit of a “culture war”.
In the end, we told the museum they had to choose between a photo of humanity, or a statue celebrating a slaver. They chose the latter and the photo is due to be taken down.
The question of taking down representations of colonial exploitation and racism is vexed. Personally, I wouldn’t have a problem with removing every publicly-displayed Victorian-era (which most of them are) statue of a male (which most of them are) bloody imperialist. However, taken to its logical conclusion, this could lead to demolishing swathes of the City of London, Bristol and Liverpool, the wealth of which were vastly increased by slavery. There are probably better uses of our time. Nonetheless, as we argued to the museum, many places in the southern states of America have removed statues of people with far greater cultural significance that Sir Robert Geffrye because of the offence their role in fighting for slavery during the Civil War causes, particularly to black people.
Of course, all of this is now overlaid with – and somewhat distracted by – a war that makes the Museum of the Home’s decision seem even worse. Jonny’s photo shows my mum with a family who fled a war in just the same way people are trying to escape Ukraine. In a way the UK government is trying to avoid, she gave them a home. Sadly, for the moment, the Museum of the Home no longer deserves to have a word associated with safety and sanctuary attached to it, so for me, has reverted to being the Geffrye Museum.