Laura Gascoigne

You don’t have to be ‘woke’ to be troubled by the Fitzwilliam Museum’s links to slavery

Black Atlantic, the first of three planned exhibitions to adopt a multiracial approach to colonial history, will go too far for some and not far enough for others

The first painted portrait of a black man, thought to be the bodyguard of Charles V or a courtier of Margaret of Austria: ‘Portrait of an African Man’, c.1525-30, by Jan Mostaert. Credit: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

What happens when a museum outlives the worldview of its founder? For publicly funded museums with collections amassed during the Empire that no longer reflect the perspectives of a post-imperial multiracial audience, it’s a difficult question.

For the Fitzwilliam Museum, there’s an added embarrassment: the £100,000 bequest from Richard, 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam with which it was endowed and built in 1816, was based on an inheritance from the Anglo-Dutch merchant Matthew Decker, Fitzwilliam’s grandfather and a founding director of the South Sea Company that transported more than 50,000 captured Africans across the Atlantic in the first half of the 18th century....

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