Museum leaders and the legacy of empire

Museum leaders and the legacy of empire

Museum Leaders graphics

Museum leaders and the legacy of empire

Thu, 29th October 2020

14:00 to 15:00

Repatriation of artefacts, Black Lives Matter, funding cuts. What challenges are currently faced by our museums and their leaders?

Museum leaders have been grappling with the issue of repatriation of artefacts for some years and the lessons they have learned provide useful insights for leaders more generally. 

Organisations are confronting exceptional challenges derived from urgent social forces including the pandemic, inequality and broken systems. Some of these issues are deep rooted in society and have a long history. Recently the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on the legacies of slavery and Empire and how it impacts our lives today. 

The School and the University of Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) department came together to explore this topic.

The discussion was opened by two museum leaders  — Dr Laura van Broekhoven, Director of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and Samenua Sesher, Founder and Director of the Museum of Colour.

Dr van Broekhoven said that museums were once proud to be labelled 'universal', and would put objects on display without consulting the cultures from which the items had been taken. Curators now think differently about the purposes of museums. 'We no longer believe there is only one way of being. We know that it is that diversity that makes humanity so joyful.'

'People see repatriation as a loss,' she added, but museums can gain by having conversations about the return of objects. 'in all of these cases, this is the first time real research has been done on those objects.'

Ms Sesher underlined the need for museum leaders to acknowledge different perspectives. 'There is so much we are missing by only having this Eurocentric lens,' she said.

Two cultural industry professionals responded to their conversation: Eleanor McGrath, head of Grants at the Art Fund; and Elizabeth McKay, Chief Operating Officer of the London Transport Museum.


Dr Pegram Harrison, Senior Fellow in Entrepreneurship at Oxford Saïd, and Lucy Shaw, Head of Partnerships at GLAM


Dr Laura Van Broekhoven, Director of Pitt Rivers Museum and Samenua Sesher, OBE, Founder and Director of the Museum of Colour

Responding Panellists

Eleanor McGrath, Executive MBA student at Oxford Saïd, Linbury Scholar, Head of Grants at the Art Fund
Elizabeth McKay, Chief Operating Officer at the London Transport Museum and Saïd Business School MBA alumna:

The Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM) of the University of Oxford comprise four museums (The Ashmolean Museum, History of Science Museum, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum), The Oxford Botanic Garden and Arborteum and the Bodleian Libraries. Together these sites contain some of the world's most significant collections. While they provide important places of scholarly enquiry, for the public they also represent the front door to the wealth of knowledge and research curated and generated at the University.