V&A Dundee

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Decolonising Scotland's design history

Crucial aspects of ​Scotland’s history, and therefore design history, are underpinned by the exploitation of enslaved and colonised people around the world.

At V&A Dundee we know we must do more in our galleries and programme to acknowledge this, and to continually and critically re-examine the stories we tell about the objects in our care.

In summer 2019 we hosted a workshop with the Transnational Scotland Network that brought together academics, designers and artists to critique the Scottish Design Galleries at V&A Dundee, and particularly the way they address (or do not address) Scotland’s role in imperialism and slavery. We wanted to interrogate the narratives of the gallery, to expose what was missing from the story, and to work together to forge a path towards change.

From these conversations we learned that the galleries leave many stories untold, insufficiently represent and misrepresent several objects, and in some cases even perpetuate a sense of historical amnesia about the brutal realities of the British empire and Scotland’s role in the slave trade.

Here are some examples:

Photo of a fine linen napkin from 1762. It's white and is detailed with thistles and lions embroidered into it.
Fine linen napkin, 1762. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

Scotland’s role in the Caribbean colonies and the transatlantic slave trade is largely absent from our galleries. We show this fine linen napkin made in 1762 for the domestic market, but we don’t show the much more prevalent coarse linen produced on the East Coast of Scotland around this time, which was sold in huge quantities to American and Caribbean plantations for clothing enslaved people.

Photo of a Scottish glengarry cap decorated with Indian embroidery in reds and pinks with floral and Paisley motifs.
Scottish glengarry cap decorated with Indian embroidery. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

Scottish regiments were deployed all across India in the 19th century to forcefully maintain British rule. On display we have this cap which takes the form of a Scottish glengarry decorated with Indian embroidery. It might have been made by an Indian craftsperson to sell to Scottish soldiers. An Indian regiment of the British army later adopted the glengarry as their uniform cap – is this a sign of cultural exchange or subjugation?

Drawing of architectural plans of a cathedral in Khartoum.
Drawing of cathedral in Khartoum (Sudan). (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

This cathedral in Khartoum (Sudan) was designed by Scottish architect Robert Weir Schultz. In our gallery we say he created a blend of European and Middle Eastern architecture. What we don’t say is that the cathedral was built only two years after Khartoum’s violent conquest by British-led armed forces in 1898. The cathedral symbolised a new era of British Christian rule in an Arab Muslim city, so Schultz’s hybrid design had political purpose.

Photo of Turkey Red fabric. it's bright red with an exquisitely embroidered yellow and blue peacock on it, as well as flowers and the Paisley pattern.
Turkey Red fabric. (Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.)

Scottish design firms used powerful wider trade networks to push Scottish exports in the British colonies, undercutting local economies and craftspeople. Turkey Red fabrics were produced in Scotland but many appropriated Indian motifs such as peacocks and ‘butas’ (which became known in the West as ‘Paisley’ patterns). This was so they could be sold cheaply in India for saris.

The Scottish Design Galleries are not a definitive statement about Scotland’s design history, and nor should they be. They can only ever be a snapshot of a much broader picture. It is our job as a museum to bring in new objects, themes, perspectives and voices that continually challenge interpretations of the past and present, widening and providing a platform for debate and helping us interrogate preconceptions and world views.

We know that we must do more to decolonise the way we present Scotland’s design history in our galleries and programme, and that this needs to go further than rewriting our labels. We also know that BAME academics, writers and designers must be at the forefront in this process, so please watch for more updates, and tell us your views.