London's National Gallery is reexamining its past and its ties to slavery

Top image: National Gallery Exterior - Trafalgar Square © National Gallery, London

While London’s National Gallery is still struggling with its repatriation efforts for its collection of looted artifacts, it is not completely silent on reexamining its controversial past. This week, the National Gallery released the results of several years of research looking into the legacies of British Slave-ownership of the museum’s donors, collectors, and other figures associated with the museum.

As one can imagine, a large and historical institution like the National Gallery must, in one way or another, be tied to slavery. According to the museum, the project is intended to “find out about what links to slave-ownership can be traced within the Gallery, and to what extent the profits from plantation slavery impacted our early history.” Other databases used are The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and The History of Parliament.

So far, the research has uncovered 67 individuals with either direct, familial, or more tangential connections to slavery. The research also found names connected to the abolition movement, both slavery and abolition, or neither. The researchers do note that they’ve covered all possible connections with slavery, meaning that this result is not meant to be used as a direct connection with slavery. For example, Sir Thomas Lawrence has painted both slave-owners and abolitionists.

The project started in 2018 when the museum approached Dr. Nicholas Draper, a founder and then Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership (LBS) at the University College London. LBS shared its database with the museum, which consists of information like known British slave-owners, estates, and any other individuals that are affiliated with slave-owning and selling.

Broken into several phases, the project looked into the names of trustees and donors, as well as some important sitters and painters, and if or how they are connected to slavery. The first two phases covered names from 1824 to 1880. The third phase is now in process and will be looking at the period of 1880 to 1920. The next phase will be looking even further back as far as 1640.

Many institutions similar to the National Gallery in size, scope, and history would not dare to undertake such a project. As such, this project has received its fair share of backlash, primarily from the more conservative British media. Some publications have called the project a “hall of shame” and cast “the stigma of slavery upon hundreds of paintings.”

It might be difficult to look at the past in such a harsh and critical light, but the National Gallery is prepared to face any sort of backlash over this project. “Facing these histories honestly may be difficult, but we are seeking ways to acknowledge their significance in more direct and explicit ways, through research, interpretation, and debate,” said a spokesperson of the National Gallery to Artnet News.

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