V&A Dundee exposes Scottish design icons’ slavery links

This article was first published by The Guardian

Scotland’s newest museum, the V&A Dundee, has started challenging the cherished status of some of the country’s design icons, exposing their links to slavery, colonial wars and cultural appropriation.

In a reassessment of its collection before its reopening this week, V&A Dundee has updated its Scottish design gallery to show how many of the country’s most famous industries profited from British colonisation of much of the globe.

It includes the Paisley pattern that uses mango and teardrop-shaped motifs. V&A Dundee now tells visitors these were Kashmiri and Persian designs appropriated by Scottish firms and sold back to south Asian consumers at prices that undercut local producers.

Factories in the Vale of Leven near Glasgow profited from the production of bright and long-lasting Turkey Red fabrics for sale in India, without telling Hindu consumers they used bullocks’ blood during the dyeing process, which was against their religious beliefs.

Alongside a display of an elegant linen damask napkin bearing the arms of Scotland from 1762, the museum points out that 90% of Scotland’s coarse linen was exported to clothe slaves on plantations in the Americas.

Rewritten labels and gallery panels also link a Scottish architect’s design for the Cathedral Church of All Saints in Khartoum with Sudan’s “violent conquest” by British-led forces, and an elaborately embroidered glengarry military bonnet from India with colonial Indian regiments. Another explains how Scottish tea planters, jute mill owners and shipping magnates profited through the East India Company.

The V&A Dundee disclosed its decolonisation programme in time for its reopening on Thursday, five months after it was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is running the V&A’s blockbuster exhibition on the 1960s fashion designer Mary Quant.

The reassessment was carried out in consultation with the V&A Museum in Kensington, which owns about 60% of the Dundee museum’s exhibits, after its curator Meredith More, who was previously the Scotland curator in Kensington, began reappraising the collection 18 months ago.

Sophie McKinlay, the V&A Dundee’s programmes director, said the work involved consulting experts from the universities of St Andrews and Dundee, and developing new programmes to bring in artists, curators and specialists to expand its work on decolonisation, class and local communities.

“This is the only step for us if we’re going to be relevant as a 21st-century museum,” she said. “Museums, if we are to be relevant, need to be open, we need to be transparent [and] we need to share.

“If we can view these historic objects through a contemporary lens, that is the key to understanding design. You can only unlock those stories by really understanding the history but also understanding their relevance today.”

McKinlay said the museum was “acutely conscious” of its need to bring in minority ethnic experts, curators and artists. “There’s a longer-term commitment that this absolutely cannot be a hollow gesture; that this needs to be backed up by systemic change.”

Under its director, Tristram Hunt, the V&A Museum has also re-evaluated its work and collections in parallel with the Black Lives Matter movement and a sector-wide reappraisal of how European museums built their collections after colonising, exploiting or subjugating other countries during the colonial era.

The V&A Museum, whose collection is significantly larger than that of its Dundee outpost, is not relabelling its exhibits but has set up an anti-racism taskforce to ensure its next five-year work programme is underpinned by “diversity, equality and inclusion”.

The museum has put on new displays to identify its set of Asante goldweights – copper alloy weights seized by British troops in a raid on Kumase, in what is now Ghana, in 1874 – as the product of imperial conquest. Another uses gold and silver pieces to explore Nazi looting through the stories of eight Jewish collectors and their families.

V&A Dundee’s initiative follows a recent re-evaluation of Scotland’s integral role in the British empire and its enrichment from the Atlantic slave trade and plantations in the Americas.

Duncan Dornan, the head of museums with Glasgow Life, which runs the city’s major museums, said it had hired a new curator, who starts work in September, to lead its work on decolonisation and to expand its programmes with the city’s minority ethnic residents.

Other initiatives include a new display at its Riverside transport museum on the role of Glaswegian shipbuilders who sold dozens of steamships to the Confederate rebel army to break blockades during the US civil war.

Last year Glasgow University pledged £20m for a research project with the University of the West Indies after a study estimated it had benefited financially by up to £198m from slave trade receipts in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Plans are being drafted for a museum of slavery that will explore Scotland’s ties to the trade and plantations economy.

Five V&A Dundee exhibits – before and after

Jute bags
Dundee became famous as Juteopolis because it made so many jute sacks and goods, and “Dundee’s shipyards built the ships that imported raw jute fibre from south Asia”.
Now: “Dundee-built ships brought the raw fibre to the city from Bengal, where it was grown by peasants, or ryots, in the Ganges river delta.”

The Paisley pattern
The designs “proved so successful that their characteristic teardrop or pine cone pattern became known around the world as ‘Paisley’.”
Now: “Paisley shawls became so successful that their characteristic mango, teardrop or pinecone shaped motif, known in Kashmir and Persia as buta, became known in the west as the ‘Paisley pattern’.”

Fine linen napkin, 1762
Linen weaving became one of Scotland’s main industries after 1707, and Edinburgh and Dunfermline “became two major centres for the weaving of fine linen damask goods”.
Now: “Scotland mostly produced coarse linen for export, 90% of which was sold to plantations in the Americas for clothing enslaved people.”

Turkey Red fabrics
 Factories in the Vale of Leven used long-lasting bright red dyes which “often incorporated Asian motifs and were particularly popular with Indian markets.”
Now: “Hindu consumers were not aware that during the dyeing process madder root extract was combined with bullocks’ blood, which was against their religious beliefs.”

Glengarry bonnet
This finely embroidered cap emerged after “Scottish regiments were deployed across India, and in 1848 the Ludhiana Sikh Regiment adopted the Glengarry as its uniform cap”.
Now: “Following the first Anglo-Sikh war, the newly formed Regiment of Ludhiana, which included colonised Indian soldiers, adopted the Glengarry as its uniform cap. Is this a sign of cultural exchange or subjugation?”