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Ipswich and Colchester museums to be 'decolonised' over next six years in bid to address 'problematic' displays

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A plan to ‘decolonise’ collections at Ipswich and Colchester museums over the next six years has been agreed, which museum chiefs say will help address 'problematic' displays and encourage greater diversity.

The joint Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service, which runs Ipswich Museum, Ipswich Art Gallery and Christchurch Mansion in Suffolk, as well as Colchester Castle, Hollytrees Museum and the National History Museum in Colchester, has published a plan for 2021-27, linked to the Ipswich Museum revamp project.

The document, approved unanimously by the the joint museums committee of Ipswich and Colchester borough councils on Tuesday afternoon, said that Ipswich Museum’s displays are 'problematic, with certain artefacts of questionable provenance'.

Ipswich Museum. Picture by Mark Westley
Ipswich Museum. Picture by Mark Westley

It added: “The documentation of much of the world cultures collection, collected predominantly in the 19th Century, is superficial and needs urgent remedial investigation.”

It has also been acknowledged that 'whilst the museum has an array of world objects, its current ethnic visitor profile does not reflect that of the local, diverse demographic'.

Work under the plan will see new research with indigenous sources and previously excluded stories, and re-examining how the museum came by some of its artefacts and being transparent with visitors of how they were acquired.

Ipswich Art Gallery. Picture: Google Maps
Ipswich Art Gallery. Picture: Google Maps

Frank Hargrave, Colchester and Ipswich Museums manager, recognised it was a tricky subject but said it is a strategy of 'better engagement and improving diversity'.

He said: “It’s not about being unnecessarily provocative, it’s about finding long term solutions and working with people to find solutions without being tokenistic or overly antagonistic.”

It was 'not about taking stories away or hiding things, very much the opposite'.

Among some of the areas considered most problematic are holdings of human remains and religious artefacts, as well as those acquired by those with imperial agendas of their time such as colonial officers, expedition captains and missionaries.

Ipswich Borough Council portfolio holder for museums, Carole Jones, said: “I think it is really important for our funders because Arts Council England almost requires this now of museums, so it is important that we have a strategy.

“We have got a world collection and it is a really important one – it has something like 4,000 items in it and we don’t know enough about it really.

"In a way, this gives us the opportunity to look at it, explore it, to understand where our objects came from, how did we get them, from whom did we get them, where did they come from.

“I think it is about expanding the history of our objects and expanding our knowledge of the history of our objects in those collections.”

It comes as a wider national debate on colonial era celebration is questioned, with debates on statues of key figures taking place nationally following the toppling of Bristol’s statue of slave trader Edward Colston and the Cecil Rhodes monument in Oxford.

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