There is a portrait in the care of Glasgow’s museums which stands as a metaphor for the way the city, and Scotland as a whole, has grudgingly conceded ownership of dark chapters from the past.
The picture depicts John Glassford, one of the leading tobacco lords of the 18th century, seated at home alongside his family in their grand mercantile townhouse. The canvas is rich in colour and texture, testament to the wealth Glassford amassed on the back of the slave trade. Amid the plush fabric, sparkling jewellery and ripe fruit, one detail stands out: the faint outline of a young black boy, barely visible to the naked eye, his features obscured by years of dirt, smoke and grime. He is present, and yet not.
At the weekend, Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens, roused an issue which has discomfited generations of Scottish civic society. In a timely reflection on the unrest in the US over the future of Confederate monuments, Mr Harvie said the time was right to reconsider how best to display statues commemorating Scots who made their fortunes in the slave trade throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. “I would be far more in favour of people seeing statues in a museum rather than raised on pedestals,” he said.
The idea seems worthwhile. In isolation, statues are often unreliable representations of both the individuals they portray and their times. Given the space restrictions of plaques and panels, this is often an oversight; on occasion, it is a deliberate attempt to disregard inconvenient truths.
In Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square, for example, the magnificent architectural achievement of the Melville Monument is crowned with a statue of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. One branch of history hails him as Scotland’s uncrowned king; a leading legal light who took his astute mind and Scots tongue to Westminster.
Another sees past the guff and calls Dundas for what he was: a tyrant who delayed the abolition of slavery and used troops to enforce the Highland Clearances, karmic investments which led to his impeachment. An act of reverence elevated Dundas to the monument’s summit. In hindsight, it seems fitting that, when the capital’s gulls take flight, his is the first scalp they deposit on.
His likeness is a shining example of the imperfect art of statuary, with the plaque at the bottom of the monument informing passers-by Dundas was “a dominant figure for over four decades,” which is like describing Hitler as a lance corporal in the Bavarian army who rose to international prominence.
Were Mr Harvie’s suggestion to be acted upon, misnomers such as these would be struck off, replaced with fulsome biographical accounts of those captured in stone and bronze. A museum, which illuminates history instead of exhibiting it, seems the best place in which to provide such a service.
The slave trade, and Scotland’s role in it, is integral to our understanding of the current inequitable system of land ownership. They are important, resonant stories and museums have at their disposal the imagination and technology with which to keep them alive.
And yet, somehow, Mr Harvie’s idea feels rash, if not altogether dangerous to our understanding of what has gone before.
Moving contentious statues to museums may provide historical context but it risks drastically curtailing the number of people who see them, especially if they are sited in a solitary wing with little publicity.
Over the years, there have been excellent exhibitions relating to Scotland and slavery, such as How Glasgow Flourished at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which laid bare how the city’s merchants amassed their fortunes. But it was temporary and attracted only a modest footfall.
The UK’s only institution dedicated to the issue, the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, is a splendid resource, built on courage and candour, which identifies individual merchants and explores in detail the bloodstained workings of the trade. But last year, it welcomed just 382,757 visitors. To put that in perspective, some 6,420,395 people went to the British Museum.
By virtue of their construction and symbolism, statues provide permanence and prominence. Centuries later, we should not be parcelling up the guilt that forms slavery’s emotional legacy, and people should not be forced to seek them out. At the risk of asking a question with no right answer, is it not more important that people learn at least part of the story instead of remaining blissfully unaware altogether?
Scotland, and Glasgow in particular, has stuck its head in the sand over slavery for centuries, and it is only now making amends. This month, Glasgow Life, the custodians of the Gallery of Modern Art, announced a new display exploring the history of its 18th-century building, once the city’s Royal Exchange, where slave and plantation owners made their profit. It is a welcome addition to the city’s cultural life and shows how interpretation is an evolving process; many sculptures, not least the Melville Monument, would benefit from similar attention.
The fact is the statues to those who enjoyed the spoils of slavery will always be a distressing sight to some. All the better. They should upset us, challenge us and force us to think about our own little slither in history’s timeline. And it means the gulls always have somewhere to do their business.