Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund awards grant to University of Cambridge Museums for a project confronting the legacies of empire
A new two-year project supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund will uncover the hidden voices and untold stories of individual items and collections across the University.
The University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) is a consortium of nine collections. Together, they constitute England’s highest concentration of internationally significant collections outside London. UCM’s collections include more than five million works of art, artefacts and specimens, spanning four and a half billion years of history. The museums are famed for their associations with Darwin, Newton, Captain Cook, and Scott of the Antarctic, and include paintings by world-famous artists like Titian, Monet and Picasso.
However, there is a pressing need to shift the focus beyond these famous historical figures to uncover hidden voices and unacknowledged power structures that are fundamental to the foundation and development of the collections. There are countless untold stories of individual items and collections — stories that have been neglected or even silenced by historical acquisition and curation practices.
New funding will now allow the UCM to meet this challenge across its diverse collections. The Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, run by the Museums Association, funds projects that develop collections to achieve social impact and has supported more than 100 projects since its launch in 2011. Generous support from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund will make it possible for UCM to undertake a two-year project, working with communities across Cambridge and beyond to discover, uncover and tell these stories so that the collections will be inclusive, engaging and relevant for the future.
We are thrilled to receive this support from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. Our collections have countless untold stories to tell. With this funding in place and by working collaboratively with our communities, we can open up those stories, ensuring the University of Cambridge Museums are open, inclusive spaces for all who visit.
The project will reconsider how museums open up discussions about provenance, ownership and difficult histories, while also supporting museum staff to develop the confidence to discuss challenging issues around the legacies of enslavement, systemic racism, white privilege, and objects with contested or difficult histories and iconographies. Throughout the project, communities will be put at the heart of the changes being made.
Over the two years, the University’s museums will examine objects both directly and indirectly linked to enslavement, culminating in an ambitious exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, drawing on collections from all the University’s museums. The most ambitious and challenging project undertaken by the UCM across the full range of the University’s museums so far, the project will also provide a model of how to develop joint cross-collection programming and research projects on challenging topics with communities at their heart – this will also benefit the wider museum, cultural and heritage sectors.
Collaborative workshops undertaken in preparation for the project have already started to reveal previously untold stories. Rock specimens that are representative of the materials used to construct administrative colonial buildings; a ring dial that looks to be copied from a European model but includes Sanskrit astrological symbols; botanical watercolours that depict the use of European gardens to display items of conquest from colonised nations – just three examples of objects with stories that are only now being revealed.
The Museums Association is delighted to be supporting this project through the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. We’ve seen first hand how exploring the legacy of empire and slavery in museums can deepen and broaden our understanding of the past. This project will unlock hidden histories across University of Cambridge Museums’ amazing collections and empower local communities to explore these new stories.
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