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Museum's efforts to pull down statue of its slave trade founder blocked by Government

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 10/06/2021 Anita Singh
a clock on the front of a brick building: Statue - Paul Grover for The Telegraph © Paul Grover for The Telegraph Statue - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

The Government has blocked a museum’s attempts to remove a statue of its namesake, a 17th century trader who made part of his fortune from the slave trade.

The Museum of Home will reopen on Saturday after changing its name from the Geffrye Museum. It was originally named after Sir Robert Geffrye, Lord Mayor of London in 1685, and is based in almshouses that he funded.

Local campaigners and the museum’s own staff would like the statue of Geffrye to be removed from its prominent position overlooking the main road in Hackney, a multicultural area of east London.

But Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), told the museum that the Government’s position is to "retain and explain" when it comes to statues of controversial figures.

The building is Grade I-listed, and the museum said the DCMS had made clear it would not sign off any application to move the statue and place it in a less prominent position in the grounds.

Instead, the museum will reopen with signage that explains to visitors: "These buildings were founded by Robert Geffrye, an English merchant who profited from the forced labour and trading of enslaved Africans."

a store inside of a building: Museum - Paul Grover for The Telegraph © Provided by The Telegraph Museum - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Geffrye part-owned The China Merchant, a ship chartered by the Royal African Company and used to transport West African men, women and children to plantations in Jamaica. Geffrye received a proportion of the company’s profits.

A protest by local campaigners is planned for opening day on Saturday. The museum’s board of trustees has backed the DCMS, saying that "on balance the important issues raised should be addressed through ongoing structural and cultural change".

a living room filled with furniture and a fire place: Museum - Paul Grover for The Telegraph © Provided by The Telegraph Museum - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Tamsin Ace, director of creative programmes for the museum, said: "The museum staff feel that by moving it to an alternative location on site we can explain it better.

"Having it at height on a really visible thoroughfare in Hackney is problematic. We could tell that story really well by moving it to the graveyard where he’s buried, on the far corner of the lawn. It’s a great spot for contemplation and reflection, and people can choose whether they engage with him in that way because the statue remaining in position is a painful memory."

Sonia Solicari, the museum’s director, said it was "a very challenging situation", with the museum in receipt of public funds.

The museum is reopening after three years in which it underwent an £18.1 million redevelopment.

Visitors can see living rooms from 1600 to the present day, with a new Victorian room and a 1976 room, see below, based on the homes of African-Caribbean families who moved to the UK as part of the Windrush generation.

A Government spokesman said: "The Government does not support the removal of historic objects. The Culture Secretary has been clear that, whilst it is always legitimate to examine Britain’s history, we should ‘retain and explain’ our heritage so that more people can engage in our shared past."

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