Miles Greenwood on confronting Glasgow’s colonial past in the Glasgow Museums Collection

Miles Greenwood is Curator of the Legacies of Slavery and Empire at Glasgow Museums. He spoke to SCAN’s Myriam Mouflih about working with the Glasgow Museums collection to better reflect the experiences of enslaved and colonised people. Miles discusses how he got into working in museums, the work of sharing forgotten histories and the role art can play in this.  

Markers of Glasgow’s colonial past are still visible in the city today. Streets bear the names of merchants and the lands that they exploited, and the mansions they built from the profits of tobacco still stand.  In recent years, efforts have been made to bring to light some of these colonial legacies upon which the city is built.  To address how these histories are represented within its collection Glasgow Museums created the role of Curator of Legacies of Slavery and Empire.

In November 2020, Miles Greenwood took up post, moving on from a role in Visitor Studies at Paisley Museum. “I’ve always been interested in history, particularly Black history and the history of empire, “ he explains, “partly because it’s just so relevant to my upbringing. I was taught history in a way that was very empowering. I hated formal education and the way that black history was presented to me was very disempowering,  but fortunately I had access to education that gave me my own history on my own terms.” 

Greenwood, who has pursued a career in museums sector after completing an undergraduate degree in History and a Masters in Heritage Studies, explains: “What I want to do is 100%, very audience-focused, and particularly I’m thinking about ways that I can embed anti-racism in my practice. I’m going back to my education and what interested me in history was empowering black people, particularly through history and you can’t really do that just by living in your own head looking at collections endlessly. You have to speak to people and have those conversations about how they want their own histories to be presented.”  

A key part of the job for Greenwood is “understanding the buildings, and the narratives that they’re already producing, and how those might potentially need to change.” Whilst acknowledging the importance of exposing the histories of people who have links to empire and slavery, he believes this shouldn’t come at the expense of the histories of enslaved and colonised people. “It’s not empowering for the descendants of those people, people who have experienced still to this day, colonial ideologies, such as racism, inequality, and so on.” He believes that it is through this work that we will understand how to talk about the legacies of colonialism and empire on Black lives and how Glasgow and Glaswegians benefit from those systems.  

The vast majority of the Glasgow Museums collection isn’t on display, but held in a resource centre in Nitshill. “A lot of its foundations are very much in 19th century colonialism. You have what is still called world cultures: –lots of Natural History Collections. art from around the world as well.” The legacies of enslavement and colonialism can be seen not only in the objects held in the collection, but how they came to be here in Glasgow. Items have been donated from the estates of colonial explorers who brought wide ranging artefacts back from their travels. Some of the buildings that comprise the Glasgow Museums estate, too, are enmeshed in these histories. Greenwood gives the example of the building that houses the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which was built using the profits of the 1888 International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry and showcased contributions from the British Empire, including Jamaica, India, Sri Lanka, Canada and Australia. The original museum had been housed in the mansion of a tobacco merchant, slightly west of where the current Kelvingrove Museum stands.  

Greenwood understands the importance of shedding light on these narratives and the approach he is taking engages staff from all aspects of the museum, “From my perspective, I’ve really tried to work closely with our learning and access curators. Because they are very much audience focused. And that’s essentially the most important thing. We can do all the historical research in the world, but the most important thing for museums is how we present that to our audiences. So I try my best to work closely with them and I hope that we’ll continue to do that throughout my time here.”   

Some of the work of sharing forgotten histories has been taken up by artists and engagement with collections has been a crucial part of this. “One thing that I always think about is how history has been recorded by and large by the colonised, by the enslavers, and as I was talking about offering the perspectives of people who were enslaved and colonised and sort of trying to think about that and imagine those experiences in whatever way I can, contemporary art can play a very powerful role in that.” Greenwood goes on to explain how the histories of enslaves and colonised people live throughout the diaspora, giving the example of Orisha figures that are held in the Glasgow Museums collection, made by Cuban artist Filiberto Mora. “These objects were created in 2001 and they descend from a Yoruba religion called Ifa. And the fact that it was made by a Cuban artist that was practising the religion of Santeria, which was a sort of mixture of Yoruba and Roman Catholicism, tells you a lot about the experiences of enslavement and how people did cling on to their cultures and still maintain that connection to the continent of Africa, despite systemic attempts to eradicate those cultural ties and cultural identities. It speaks to the resilience of those experiences, as well as their trauma.”  

 This experience of encountering Mora’s sculptures in the Museum’s collection seems for Greenwood to exemplify how contemporary art can help to engage people in ways that a lot of historical documents, objects and collections don’t necessarily always allow.  

Image credit: Orisha figure of Osain, made by Filiberto Mora, Cuba
© CSG CIC Glasgow Museums Collection