Icon Annual Lecture 2023: Conserving Empire

Speaker Dr Nick Merriman reflects on looking at heritage through the lens of colonialism and empire

26 Oct 2023
Join us for this year's Icon Annual Lecture, where Dr Nick Merriman will discuss looking at heritage through the lens of colonialism and empire.
Dr Nick Merriman is presently Chief Executive of the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and has recently been appointed the next Chief Executive of English Heritage.

Below, he introduces the topic of Conserving Empire.


In 1999, Stuart Hall published the influential paper ‘Whose Heritage?’, where he noted that for centuries in Britain,

its wealth was underpinned, its urban development  driven,  its  agriculture  and  industry  revolutionised,  its  fortunes  as  a  nation  settled,  its  maritime  and  commercial  hegemony  secured,  its  thirst  quenched,  its  teeth  sweetened,  its  cloth  spun,  its  food  spiced,  its  carriages  rubber-wheeled, its bodies adorned, through the imperial connection.

He also noted ‘however, in general, ‘Empire’ is increasingly subject to a widespread selective amnesia and disavowal. And when it does appear, it is largely narrated from the viewpoint of the colonisers’.

He nevertheless recognised two important shifts, the democratisation process whereby the history of ordinary people (‘from below’) was increasing in profile, along with a critique of the idea of universal knowledge, a ‘growing de-centring of  the West and western-oriented  or  Eurocentric  grand-narratives.’  

Nick - biog photo 2.jpg
Annual Lecture Speaker Dr Nick Merriman

His challenge, nearly a quarter of a century ago, was to reimagine heritage in a more inclusive manner.

Whilst this has been done comprehensively within academia, until recently, it was barely visible in public heritage discourse.

Even a few years ago, they were still, as Hall suggested in 1999 ‘at best patchy, more honoured in the breach – in profession of good intentions – than actual practice’.

This delay in recognising these more complex, multifaceted, and disputed stories embracing Britain’s colonial past is a good example of the distinction David Lowenthal made between ‘heritage’ and ‘history’, which is that heritage is ‘history as wished for’.

My contention is 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. 

His Highness Prince Aghatise Erediauwa (second from right) and the delegation representing the Oba of Benin, with the first six Benin objects returning to Nigeria from the Horniman. Credit: Horniman Museum and Gardens. Benin objects: © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria


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.

I 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.

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



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