Backlash as Hoxton’s Museum of the Home announces slave trader Geffrye’s statue will stay put

Geffrye Museum soon undergoing a two-year refurbishment. Picture: Geffrye archives

Geffrye Museum soon undergoing a two-year refurbishment. Picture: Geffrye archives - Credit: Geffrye archives

Trustees at the Museum of the Home have opted to leave up a statue of the slave trader Robert Geffrye, despite most respondents to a consultation saying they would rather see it taken down.

The Geffrye Museum in Hoxton

The Geffrye Museum in Hoxton - Credit: Archant

Managers of the former ‘Geffrye Museum’ - which dropped his name in December - announced last month they were holding a review into the statue of Geffrye.

It sits above the door of the chapel, taking centre stage among the row of alms houses he built in Kingsland Road, Hoxton, using wealth plundered from the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans.

At the time, museum director Sonia Solicari said she was aware that for many, the presence of Geffrye, who was involved with the East India Company and the Royal African Company, represented “abuse, oppression and the history of thousands of enslaved people torn from their homes and families and forced to work in appalling conditions”.

The move comes as Hackney Council launched a review into the names and landmarks in the borough’s public spaces after Black Lives Matter protesters threw a 125-year-old figure of slave trader Edward Colston into the Bristol Harbour.

Many people shared their views in public consultation, and the overall view was Geffrye’s statue should be removed.

But trustees on the board said their feedback demonstrated that what to do with the statue was “a complex debate, full of nuance and different opinions”.

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In a statement they said: “On balance the board has taken the view that the important issues raised should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change, along with better interpretation and conversation around the statue.

“The board believes that the museum should reinterpret and contextualise the statue where it is, to create a powerful platform for debate about the connection between the buildings and transatlantic slavery.

“The museum has a responsibility to reflect and debate history accurately, and in doing so to confront, challenge and learn from the uncomfortable truths of the origins of the museum buildings.”

The connections between the British home and exploitative trade would be addressed in future exhibitions and programming when it reopens, they said, adding: “We acknowledge the pain caused by the connections between the museum buildings and the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans. “The Black Lives Matter movement has demonstrated a profound need for people and institutions to educate themselves about the legacy of structural racism and colonialism.”

READ MORE: Hackney Council to rename Cassland Road Gardens to sever ties with ‘toxic history’ and slave trader John Cass Co-chair of the council’s Hackney Young Futures board and singer, Jermain Jackman, called on the board to reverse its decision.

“Hackney is one of the most diverse places in the country, known for its cultural and Black history with links to Windrush,” he said.

“For a museum in this same borough to refuse to remove a slave trader statue despite the majority of response saying otherwise is disgusting and unacceptable.”

Mayor of Hackney Phil Glanville echoed his disappointment. “This was an opportunity to send a very clear message about Hackney’s values and the museum’s role in our borough at an important time, when people across the world are looking to organisations to make bold statements and reflect the strength of feeling within their communities,” he said. “Many local people will feel very uncomfortable about this decision, especially after so many took the time to respond to the consultation.

“Residents have made it clear how important they think it is that changes are made, to ensure the borough’s parks and public spaces reflect the borough’s diverse communities.”

Hackney Quest youth worker Luke Billingham added: “It seems their sales department decided to erase Geffrye from their name for publicity and marketing reasons, but now they’re leaving up their statue of him, despite their consultation wanting it down.

“I loved the museum as a kid so I’m upset they aren’t taking a stronger stand on this.

“You can “reinterpret” a statue all you want, with a plaque or an info board or two, but a statue is about memorialisation, glorification, immortalisation, adoration. He’ll still stand as if presiding over the place.”