United Kingdom

The Hunterian appoints 'curator of discomfort' to address how collections sustain 'white supremacy'

One of Britain's most prestigious museums has appointed a 'curator of discomfort' to address how its collections have helped perpetuate the legacy of 'white supremacy'.

The Hunterian Museum said historical racist ideologies had been 'used to justify looting and plundering' and it wanted to 'rewrite the narrative' on artefacts donated by explorers and missionaries.

The museum, founded in 1807 and part of the University of Glasgow, has appointed Zandra Yeaman to work with staff in the way exhibits are promoted to the public. 

The University of Glasgow, has appointed Zandra Yeaman, pictured, to work with staff in the way exhibits are promoted to the public.

In a blog, she wrote: 'We need to acknowledge that the concept of different 'races' and 'racial groups' and the false notions of racial superiority developed during the 18th, 19th and early 20th Century are not attitudes that have been left in the past. These ideologies were used to justify the buying and selling of human beings, genocide, looting and plundering.' 

The museum was built to house the collection of Dr William Hunter, an 18th Century obstetrician who acquired items from Captain Cook's voyages to the South Seas. The museum was later given items from other collectors.

In 2009, The Hunterian repatriated four severed Maori heads to New Zealand with full tribal honours.

Jeremy Black, emeritus professor of history at the University of Exeter, warned against using today's morals to examine history.

He said: 'Ideas like this are based on a hatred of the past. It's ahistorical in the sense that it doesn't understand the particular reasons why people did things in the past.

The museum was built to house the collection of Dr William Hunter, an 18th Century obstetrician. (Interior of Hunterian museum in University of Glasgow)

'It is based on a notion of race hatred. If you endlessly use the term 'white supremacy', what you are actually doing is propounding an idea that you are to be defined by your race – not by class, not by gender, not by nationality.

'If you appoint somebody to a role like this, they are inevitably going to find things to cause a fuss about, otherwise they will be irrelevant. You are creating a lobby which is going to stir up hatred between people and this is not healthy.'

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