Like many museums around the UK, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery supports the Black Lives Matter movement. We believe that, in order to embed long-term, meaningful change, we need to look at our collections and develop new documentation and research practices that are more inclusive and appropriate.
Cumbria has a history of connection with the transatlantic slave trade. Whitehaven, on the West Cumbria coast, was a slaving port, from which several dozen slaving voyages sailed in the 1700s. Modern Carlisle developed around the textile trade; by the 19th century it was a prominent mill town. Shaddon Mill was the largest cotton mill in England.
Painting of Junction Street, in Carlisle, showing Shaddon Mill with Dixon’s Chimney. By Henry Nutter, 1860s. In its day, one of the largest cotton mills in England and now an iconic landmark within the city.
We know these histories. We know that there are stories relating to black history and to the slave trade within our collections, but we have not explored them sufficiently, and have not given them appropriate space within our galleries. By undertaking detailed research into our existing collections, and by clearly recording the black histories relating to objects, we intend to begin the process of correcting this. This process will take time and will need to be done in partnership with our local communities, but we believe that this is an important first step towards decolonising our collection, and doing justice to the important histories of black people and of slavery in Cumbria.
We will interrogate our collections in several ways:
- Histories of black people in Cumbria: Although Cumbria is considered to be a historically undiverse region, we will explore our collections and our region’s history more deeply to uncover stories of black people in Cumbria and ensure that these are recorded.
- Direct links between the collection and the transatlantic slave trade: We know that, historically, some prominent Cumbrian families were directly involved in the slave trade, either through owning slaves or through connections to shipping. We will identify links to this within our collections, and ensure that these stories are recorded alongside our objects.
- Indirect links between the collection and the transatlantic slave trade: as previously mentioned, Carlisle was a mill town, and so local people benefitted from the cotton that was grown and picked by slaves; some benefitted as workers in the mills but others as mill owners. Again, we will interrogate our collections in order to find ways in which they represent these stories, both through the social history of Carlisle’s mills but also through the donations or involvement of local mill families in the founding and development of our collections.
Researching our collections and ensuring that these histories are properly recorded will allow us to begin to embed black histories into our displays, our learning and our community engagement. We want to better represent black history and stories; to do this, we need to know what these stories are in the context of our collections and our local history. We believe that this project is an important first step in the process.