THE killing of George Floyd jolted thousands of Scots out of their lockdown stupor and on to the streets.

What began with Black Lives Matter demonstrations lamenting racist cops and calling for change soon led to protests over other related issues. Museums and heritage sites found themselves firmly in the mix, with allegations of entrenched institutional racism rife.

In England, the statue of Edward Colston being unceremoniously toppled into Bristol harbour sparked fury that figures with links to the slave trade remain publicly memorialised. Had the Melville Monument not been on a 150-foot plinth, it’s easy to imagine that the Edinburgh landmark would also have been felled.

Instead, in the Scottish capital a less drastic approach was decreed. The capital’s skyline will be unchanged, but the statue of Henry Dundas will be rededicated to the victims of the slave trade and carry plaques featuring information about its subject’s true history.

READ MORE: Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol bring down slave trader's statue

The Scottish Government’s overall response appears careful and considered, reminiscent of French president Emmanuel Macron’s handling of calls for cultural restitution. In 2017, he pledged to permanently return objects looted from African countries during colonial rule – a process which is now under way.

In a similar statement of intent, Nicola Sturgeon’s administration has announced it will sponsor an independent expert panel to recommend how Scotland’s museums can more sensitively tell the stories of the nation’s past. This was one of the less publicised elements of the latest Programme for Government.

“It is important that we recognise Scotland’s role in these painful parts of history, to ensure we learn from the mistakes and atrocities of the

past and be certain they are never repeated,” says Equalities Minister Christina McKelvie. The consultation, she adds, will enable museums to “better recognise and represent a more accurate portrayal of Scotland’s colonial and slavery history”.

Museums Galleries Scotland and Glasgow Life will jointly co-ordinate a nationwide study to amass the opinions of specialists and the public alike, all of which will inform the final recommendations made by the independently chaired panel.

“The Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted the critical need to understand and act on the racial injustice and colonialism that is still prevalent today,” states Lucy Casot, CEO of Museums Galleries Scotland.

“Scotland’s complex role in the history of slavery and the social, economic, and cultural impact of colonialism are entrenched in museum collections and heritage sites. As such, it is not just the responsibility of a few museums to tell Scotland’s colonial and slavery history but rather the responsibility of all.”

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A change of tack from museums has been in the pipeline for some time. Research projects such as The Matter Of Slavery In Scotland, run collaboratively by the University of Edinburgh and National Museums Scotland, are seeking ways to make the relationship with past ignominies more transparent and inclusive. The University of Aberdeen and V&A Dundee are among other organisations to have embarked on similar studies.

Another way to better serve the nation’s collective understanding of Scotland’s imperial past, it has been suggested, would be to establish a museum dedicated solely to telling those stories. After an impassioned session at Holyrood back in June, that could well become a reality.

McKelvie and Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf were prominent voices in the debate, alongside Patrick

Harvie, co-leader of the Scottish Greens, who tabled a successful amendment calling for the creation of Scotland’s own racism museum.

“Inequality that still exists needs an honest reflection of history. However, it also needs an honest reflection on the political ideas that are still in our society. Ongoing white supremacy is unchallenged far too often,” Harvie asserted while addressing a hybrid parliamentary session.

Altering street names and the removal of statues were other issues raised by the Glasgow MSP. “We need to ask ourselves whether such buildings, statues and street names really serve as a reminder of our history,” he asked. “I suspect that far more people know something about who Edward Colston was now than they ever did before.”

READ MORE: We cannot change the past, but we can choose who to honour

Given that many museums consider themselves to be teetering on the brink of a financial abyss – with millions already having been spent by government and charities to keep them afloat – it may seem an incongruous time to begin tackling deep-rooted links to colonial rule and slavery. The year 2020 has brought unparalleled stresses to Scotland’s culture sector, and couldn’t have been more different to last year.

The National Museum of Scotland, which has for several years been the single most visited UK attraction outside London, welcomed more than 2.2 million people from all over the world in 2019. In the same period Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum saw a 74% increase in visitor numbers. Things are now far less rosy.

While conversations around decolonising Scotland’s museums may be tough to take, particularly in these most testing of times, the fact that most cultural institutions are hurtling towards fundamental changes without any choice may well make this the perfect time to address past misdemeanours and trial a new approach.