The British Museum has removed a bust of its founding father from its pedestal and labelled him a “slave owner” in an attempt to confront its links to colonialism, the institution’s director has announced.
Sir Hans Sloane’s likeness has instead been placed in a secure cabinet alongside artefacts that explain his work in the “exploitative context of the British Empire”.
Sloane, who funded his collecting using profits made from his wife’s family’s sugar plantation, is in a display which explains his legacy as a “collector [and] slave owner”. Curators said the Black Lives Matter movement had been a catalyst for highlighting imperialist activities the museum has profited from.
The decision was signed off by Hartwig Fischer, the museum director, and revealed in an interview in The Daily Telegraph on Monday.
“We have pushed him off the pedestal,” Mr Fischer said. “We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge.”
It is part of a wider process of acknowledging the museum’s links to slavery, curators said.
Other artefacts, including those taken by Captain James Cook on his voyages, will be given new labels explaining how they were acquired by the museum through “colonial conquest and military looting”. Mr Fischer said: “Dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial, with the aim to rewrite our shared, complicated and, at times, very painful history.
“The case dedicated to Hans Sloane and his relationship to slavery is a very important step in this.
“We have pushed him off the pedestal where nobody looked at him, and placed him in the limelight.
“The British Museum has done a lot of work – accelerated and enlarged its work on its own history, the history of empire, the history of colonialism, and also of slavery. These are subjects which need to be addressed, and to be addressed properly. We need to understand our own history.”
The decision to revisit Sloane’s past was made during lockdown in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, which sparked debate around statues of controversial historical figures in public spaces. In June, a statue of Edward Colston was removed from its plinth by protesters in Bristol.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford also successfully called for the removal of a statue of philanthropist Cecil Rhodes.
Neal Spencer, keeper of Nile and Mediterranean objects and the curator behind the new Sloane display, said that “Black Lives Matter provides a certain level of urgency”.
He added: “It’s expected of museums today. The collection is owned by the public in the widest sense.
“We want to be upfront about Sloane’s collection being at the root of the British Museum. And we want to put it in a wider context, which is obviously a very difficult context.
“It happened in the exploitative context of the British Empire. I wouldn’t describe it as an imperialist organisation, but it is a museum that was founded within the context of Empire.
“Eventually we’re going to be redisplaying the whole British Museum. We want to tell more of these stories.
“We want to talk more about the context of how the museum was founded.”
Sloane’s collection of 71,000 artefacts became the starting point of the British Museum after being bequeathed to the state in his will.
The Irish-born collector, known for London street names such as Sloane Square, and being the purported inventor of drinking chocolate, also had investments in the slave-trading Royal African and South Sea Companies.
These facts are now noted on labels beside his terracotta bust, which is surrounded by tokens of the slave trade and its legacy.
A panel beside Sloane’s bust explains that this collection was “enabled by the wealth and networks that grew out of European imperialism”.
New labels also state that this bequeathed hoard contained “anatomical specimens relating to skin colour and theories of racial difference”.
While the origins of the foundational collection are being examined, a new “trail” for visitors will allow them to move through the museum on a themed tour of 16 objects unjustly taken from far-flung places in the days of Empire.
This trail will not include the Parthenon Marbles – also known as the Elgin Marbles – which have long been the subject of demands for repatriation to Greece after being taken from the Acropolis in the early 19th century.
Mr Fischer is determined that in the coming years the long-term commitment of the museum to being open about its imperial heritage will lead to an overhaul in the information available to members of the public visiting in future.
He said: “This is not just about empire and colonialism, and European expansion across the world in the last 500 years.
“It is also setting this in the wider context of human history.”