The Museum of the Home in London said that it is now considering moving a statue of a slave merchant that has been the cause of much controversy over the years. The statue in question is a full-length depiction of Sir Robert Geffrye, who made his vast fortune from the slave trade in the seventeenth century. It has stood on the site of the museum, which is located in the East End of London, since his philanthropy led to the construction of a series of charitable almshouses there. These buildings now form the Museum of the Home, an institution that, itself, used to bear the slave trader’s name until it rebranded in 2018.
Over the course of recent years, there have been increasingly loud calls for the statue of Geffrye to be removed. When the museum reopened following an extensive refurbishment programme, protest groups voiced their concerns and staged a demonstration against the statue’s prominent position. Nevertheless, the museum’s leadership team were keen to point out at the time that the building they occupy is Grade I-listed which means that significant alterations to its outward facade are not always possible. As such, Geffrye’s statue stands outside, standing prominently over one of the building’s doorways. As previously reported by MuseumNext in June, this led to frustration among local politicians including the local MP, Diane Abbott, and the mayor of Hackney, Philip Glanville.
After the initial wave of protests, there were calls from teachers in the nearby London boroughs of Haringey, Hackney and Islington to boycott school visits to the museum. The Museum of the Home usually receives something in the region of 120,000 visits each year, a significant proportion of which is made up of school trips. A local campaign group, Hackney Stand Up to Racism, also continued to raise awareness in the community of the ongoing presence of the statue.
A New Position?
It seems that the protests have had an effect on the museum’s management team because it recently posted a statement about the issue on its website. Rather than pointing out what it was not allowed to do, as had been the case with previous statements, this one suggested that the controversial piece of art might possibly be taken to a ‘less prominent space’ to the current one that faces the nearby, busy Kingsland Road.
“We feel that the statue of Robert Geffrye… does not promote the sense of belonging,” the statement read. Referring to the statue’s position on the front of the museum’s building, the statement said that it did not convey the museum’s values. “We believe that there is potential to retain the statue on our site,” the statement read. However, it went on to state that this could be an alternative location, one that is less prominent than the current space it occupies. Furthermore, unattributed statement went on to say that the new place for the statue should be one where the museum can better inform the public of the full story of the history of the buildings and Geffrye’s role in them. This would include aspects of his life, too, including his involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
The museum also said that it would now develop a new curatorial programme to explain and contextualise Geffrye’s historic association with the site. This is a considerable change of tone from the Museum of the Home’s former position. It pointed out that it had conducted a thorough public consultation with Hackney Council in 2020 when the museum’s board of trustees elected to keep the statue and better explain the reasons behind its presence. It also said that more than 2,000 people fed into that decision but admitted most of them had called for the statue to be taken down.
Nevertheless, the museum now says it will work within the legal framework of a listed building, as well as with other stakeholders, including the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to see what can be done about moving the statue to a new location on its site.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.