Government blocks bid from museum to take down statue

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Government blocks museum’s bid to knock down statue of 17th-century founder of the slave trade as it reopens after £18m renovation

  • Museum of Home formerly known as Geffrye Museum after Sir Robert Geffrye
  • Renamed itself and wanted to remove the slave trader statue on the building
  • Oliver Dowden blocked move, which he says violates ‘keep and explain’ policy

Ministers have blocked a museum’s efforts to remove the statue of a 17th-century merchant who made some of his fortune from the slave trade in the latest government intervention in the debate over colonial monuments.

Opening Saturday after an £18 million refurbishment, the Museum of Home was previously known as the Geffrye Museum after Sir Robert Geffrye, a mayor of London and owner of a slave ship who financed the almshouses that now house the attraction.

Local activists had backed calls for the monument, which occupies a prominent position overlooking the road in Hackney, a multicultural area in East London, but Culture Minister Oliver Dowden intervened to stop the move.

The Museum of Home was formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, after Sir Robert Geffrye, a Lord Mayor of London and owner of a slave ship who financed the almshouses that now house the attraction

Robert Geffrye: Mayor of London who got rich on the backs of African slaves

Sir Robert Geffrye (1613-1703) was an English merchant who rose to the rank of Lord Mayor of London in 1685 and whose generous bequests to the poor of London were financed in part by the toil of African slaves.

Born of poor parents near Saltash in Cornwall, he moved to London and established himself as a prominent East Indian merchant.

He rose quickly in high society, became Master of the Worshipful Company of Ironmongers, received a knighthood and was eventually elected Lord Mayor of London in 1685. He was also president of Bethlehem Hospital, commonly known as Bedlam.

Geffrye was a major tobacco trader and also had investments in forced labor and slave trade, including an investment in a slave ship, the China Merchant.

On his death, he left £10,000 to a number of charities, including the almshouses that would become the Geffrye Museum, before it was recently renamed the Museum of the Home.

Mr Dowden told trustees that the government’s policy is to “preserve and explain” monuments to controversial figures, and would refuse planning permission to move it from the landmark building.

At the opening of the museum on Saturday, a plaque will be added which reads to visitors: ‘These buildings were founded by Robert Geffrye, an English merchant who took advantage of the forced labor and trade in enslaved Africans.’

Tamsin Ace, director of creative programs for the museum, said: The Telegraph: ‘The museum staff think we can explain it better by moving it to an alternative location on site.

“It’s problematic to have it up to date on a really visible passageway in Hackney.”

Museum director Sonia Solicari admitted she was in a “very difficult situation” as government censorship could lead to the loss of the institution’s main source of funding.

Dowden raised the issue of funds in a letter to the museum last year, warning that the “significant taxpayer support you receive is recognition of the important cultural role you play for the entire country.”

“It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that calls this into question.”

A protest against the statue is scheduled for Saturday, with Hackney MP Diane Abbott and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon addressing crowds.

The incident is the latest row over statues, which began last year when protesters inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement threw a monument to slave trader Edward Colston into Bristol harbour.

Local activists had backed calls for the monument to be knocked down, which occupies a prominent position overlooking the road in Hackney, a multicultural area in East London.

Local activists had backed calls for the monument to be knocked down, which occupies a prominent position overlooking the road in Hackney, a multicultural area in East London.

The statue now lies on its side in a museum, still defaced with graffiti from protesters.

Meanwhile, ministers weighed in yesterday in the fierce row over the fate of a statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, where they warned that a planned education boycott by 150 rebel academics could lead to students receiving compensation.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden intervened to stop the move

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden intervened to stop the move

Left-wing dons say they will still lecture to Oriel’s 300 students, but deny them the opportunity for in-depth discussion in small groups or one-on-one sessions until the colonialist monument is toppled.

Proponents of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign claim the small statue high on Oriel’s main building “glorifies colonialism,” but the college decided last month it would stay after a backlash from donors.

A spokesman for No. 10 said universities have a duty to provide good quality education and the government would expect ‘appropriate measures’ to be taken if that is disrupted.

Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg also weighed in, describing the academics involved as a “useless bunch,” adding, “We can’t let this wake up.”

When asked about Geffrye’s statue, a government spokesperson said: ‘The government does not support the removal of historical artifacts.

“The Culture Secretary has been clear that while it is always legitimate to research Britain’s history, we need to ‘preserve and explain’ our heritage so that more people can participate in our shared past.”

Memorials to politicians, war heroes and authors who have all been targeted for ties to slavery and racist beliefs

Since the statue of Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol harbour, there has been a spate of vandal attacks on several monuments across Britain.

A statue to Winston Churchill was defaced with the words ‘was a racist’ and ‘f*** your agenda’ written under the wartime Prime Minister’s memorial in London’s Westminster Square.

Slave trader Robert Milligan’s was covered in a shor and the message ‘Black Lives Matter’ was posted on it in Western India Docks amid calls for it to be removed. It was later removed by Tower Hamlets Council.

Tower Hamlets Council removed a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan after it was covered up and displayed the message 'Black Lives Matter' during last month's protests

Tower Hamlets Council removed a statue of slave trader Robert Milligan after it was covered up and displayed the message ‘Black Lives Matter’ during last month’s protests

Less than a year after it was founded, “Nazi” was scribbled under a statue of Nancy Astor, the first woman to serve in parliament, in Plymouth.

A monument to 19th-century politician Henry Vassall-Fox, the third Baron Holland, was splashed with red paint in Holland Park. A cardboard sign that read “I owned 401 slaves” was perched in the arms of the bronze statue, with the number on the pedestal next to red handprints.

A Grade II listed monument to Admiral Lord Nelson, Britain’s foremost naval hero, which stands in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, was sprayed with a black ‘V’ in the center of a circle – an anarchist symbol.

Red paint splashed onto another figure of Lord Nelson in South London’s Deptford Town Hall.

In Kent, a former councilor wrote ‘Dickens Racist’ at a museum dedicated to the beloved 19th-century author. Letters from the writer of Oliver Twist revealed that he wanted to ‘exterminate’ Indian civilians after a failed uprising.

A statue of Civil War leader Oliver Cromwell in Wythenshawe Park, Manchester, had the words ‘Cromwell is a cockroach’, ‘f*** racist’ and the Black Lives Matter acronym ‘BLM’ scribbled on it last month. Thousands of people were massacred during the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.

BLM was also scribbled on the Worcester Civil War memorial in Royal Park.

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