Icon Annual Lecture 2023: Conserving Empire

Join us for Icon's 5th Annual Lecture, where Dr Nick Merriman will discuss viewing heritage through the lens of colonialism and empire

Join us for Icon's 5th Annual Lecture, where we will discuss looking at heritage through the lens of colonialism and empire.

Conserving Empire

We are delighted to announce that the 2023 Icon Annual Lecture will be delivered online by Dr Nick Merriman, Chief Executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, London.

In this talk, Dr Nick Merriman will examine some of the issues that arise when we look at heritage through the lens of colonialism and empire.

Taking Stuart Hall’s classic 1999 article on ‘Whose Heritage?’ he will argue that a generation later, progress has been far too slow in recognising and addressing these historic legacies. 

Since the tipping point of 2020, these stories need to be integrated into our mainstream accounts of the past. This is good history rather than culture wars, and it has vital implications for conservation specifically and heritage in general.

Nick will argue that we need now, by recognising the legacy of Empire, to see heritage as ‘meaningful history’, in other words, as stories about the past that resonate with people’s identities and emotions.

Recent instances of this approach include the 2018 redisplay of the World Museum in Vienna, as a history of colonial encounter, and the renewal in the same year of the Africa Museum, in Tervuren, Belgium as an explicitly decolonial museum. 

In the UK, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition ‘The Past is Now’ in 2017-18 is cited as a key moment. There have also recently been some interesting examples of decolonial approaches to natural history display, including in the Grant Museum and Scarborough Museum.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd brought these narratives, hitherto largely confined to academic circles, to stark public view, sometimes with strong reactions from members of the public and from elected politicians, after the toppling of public statues.

Nick will argue that this represents a tipping point for heritage conservation and interpretation, meaning that colonial and imperial narratives must form an essential part of our practice.

He'll explore what this means in practical terms, including the guidance to ‘retain and explain’ contentious monuments, to approaches to restitution of collections.