Aamer Anwar's keynote speech

Museums Association Conference and Exhibition 2012

Watch the video below of human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar's keynote speech at the Museums Association Conference and Exhibition 2012.

Of the International Museum of Slavery in his home city of Liverpool, he says: 

"That, for me, is a museum that was built with a mission, tied in with a community. 

At its heart was a rage that racists still walk the streets of Liverpool and the rest of the country, and that African and Caribbean people still live in poverty... It is hard to put into words actually what that museum meant for people in the community."

Museums, he says, can have an impact when they move beyond neutrality and actively engage with communities.

Aamer Anwar from Museums Association on Vimeo.

Read more about the conference on the Museums Association website.

Video transcript

Tamsin Russell Good afternoon my name is Tamsin Russell and I’m president of the Scottish Museums Federation and it’s a pleasure to welcome you back after lunch. If you’ve heard of our speaker in the past then you’ll know how exciting the next 30 minutes are going to be and if you have not, you are in for a treat. Not averse to speaking out, Aamer’s career to date has challenged prejudice, bias and injustice and his biography cataloguing his impact socially and legally inspires me. 

I look forward to hearing his insights and observations around social justice, evolution and cultural identity and I task you all to listen carefully and take his messages home to compel discussion and dialogue both in your organisations and with your families. He’s polled as one of the top 10 most influential people in law and is considered to be one of Scotland’s leading criminal defence lawyers. But now please prepare to be influenced rather than defended, may I welcome to the lectern, Aamer Anwar.

Aamer Anwar: Thank you, not quite sure how to follow that introduction. When I was asked to speak I was somewhat surprised, I normally get asked to speak on all sorts of controversial issues, asylum seekers, human rights, terrorism, and criminal defence but when I was asked about museums I almost instantly said yes because I thought why are they asking me, what do I know about museums and I’m no expert in this field. 

But I said yes because I was interested in the topic and I thought it was something I could think about and I’ve got plenty of time. Obviously when it got to 9 o'clock last night and my 5 year old and my 15 month year old daughter were put to bed the panic really set in and I started quickly reading through but then I thought well why not go back to roots and think about what actually museums have meant for me and my family. I thought about being born in 1967 and brought up in the city of Liverpool my own experience of museums and that’s where I want to start from. 

I think growing up there was a tendency to think of museums, growing up in the 70s and 80s in Liverpool, of it as a realm of middle classes, of white people, or the term that was often used as 'high culture', and what posh people did. Where Asian community, the Black community and the poor and the working class were excluded from those museums. Despite that my parents and obviously the schools that I went to, my parents often would take me and my sister to museums in Liverpool and London. They were extremely overwhelming, I remember going to the British Museum the first time and found the whole experience overwhelming but it didn’t do very much to inspire me or to connect me with my identity or make me proud of where I came from and make it feel particularly relevant to a young Asian boy growing up in Liverpool. 

Now at the age of 44 I have to say my first real engagement with museums probably happened when my son turned 1 and I thought about where to take him as a toddler, how to make his eyes light up on a wet, cold weekend in Glasgow, which is pretty much every weekend. I have to say to be honest what I actually found when I took him, my wife and my family said "well where you taking him today" and I was like "I’m taking him the museum", they went "what’s a one year old or a one and a half year old going to do at a museum?" I said well I’m going to give it a try and I have to say what I found surprised me, shocked me and actually moved me.

Since then we’ve become regular attendees, my family and my children, of the museums that exist within Glasgow, in Scotland of the Kelvingrove Gallery, that is a fantastic renovated museum, the National Museum of Scotland, the Slavery Museum in Liverpool, The British Museum, The Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum and others that I still want to see that have actually been created. I have to say it’s been a busy time of rediscovery for myself as an adult and probably my son was an excuse because it allowed me to get back in and see what I’d been missing all those years. 

I’m conscious to the fact that many museums face difficult times, you’re being asked to justify your very existence and the term that’s used for yourself like any other public sector is “value for money” and I have to say this, how exactly when it comes to museums can you quantify that value for money? I don’t know how for instance I would quantify the smile, the joy, the excitement in my son’s eyes when I took him for the very first time to the Kelvingrove Museum and when he saw the stuffed Elvis standing in the entranceway and when he saw an airplane hanging from the ceiling. I don’t think you can value that because I think the museums that I’ve been to and that I’ve seen and that my children have seen are value for money and I think it has to be approached in a different way. 

Museums of course do have an important role to play in promoting social justice as well as identity. In order for museums to survive I think they have to grow, they have to adapt, they have to contribute to society which means that they have to take account of the society that I grew up with 70s and 80s has changed considerably, culture has changed considerably. It means for museums having to have to revisit the personal histories of our community and opening up to different attitudes, to different languages and also creating a sense of belonging whether it be for the young, the toddlers, the 5 year olds or whether it be for the middle aged or the elderly. I think it is a case of that museums probably, like everybody else, have challenging and difficult times ahead but they can challenge difficult and sensitive issues. That is a role that I think museums should hold as paramount. 

When I said I grew up in the 70s and 80s, for me museums always seemed to be dominated by the white and older people and they never seemed to reach out to me. In the Liverpool I grew up of Liverpool’s real history I never knew for instance that many of Liverpool’s famous streets that my father drove buses on included Penny Lane were actually named after notorious slave owners. I grew up in a hostile environment where during my teen years the backdrop was the Toxteth riots of 1981, which was an uprising in the Toxteth district of Liverpool which lasted for some 4 days where young people white and Black fought and defeated the police, racist police force, under the leadership of Black Liverpudlians. It was described by the local police chief constable at the time as a product of liaisons between white prostitutes and African sailors and there was not even a response to that from the mainstream media, from the so called community leaders and of course that rebellion spread to Bristol, to Manchester, to London, towns and cities across England. 

The size and the ferocity of that response in those riots actually astonished everyone and for the very first time the people who ruled this country and for a police force that was used to hard policing and attacking or killing Black young men in police vans, they were in shock. It almost seemed up until that point that traces of Black life had actually been removed from Britain’s past to ensure that Blacks were actually not part of British future and for a young Afro Caribbean community, for a young Black community, Asian community, there was little recognition of the struggles of the history of their parents. Struggles of how for instance slavery was woven into the social fabric of Liverpool, yet they were always denied and they were big players actually in their own history and in their own struggles and when I remember how little museums were of relevance to me, to people in my community or age group, it still shocks me and I think it becomes increasingly relevant today when you consider that for me personally I think it’s a commitment that I’ve decided to ensure that carries on every year that I live and that is passed on to my children. Whether it be dinosaurs, whether it be slave trade, whether it be holocaust, whether it be displays on gun crimes that gets my children’s interest.

I am inspired by the vision and the renaissance that we’ve seen for instance in Scotland and England and other places whether it be the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Robert Burns Museum. I would like to thank those that are here today that have inspired my son and my family from what I’ve seen in the last 5 years. In Kelvingrove for instance there is now a sculpture, a permanent sculpture, which amongst the sculptures that stand out is an up to date sculpture because it’s a sculpture that was set up to commemorate the struggle and the memorial set up to  a young Asian man who was murdered, today actually, 13 years ago in Lanarkshire, just outside Glasgow. His family were forced in the depths of their grief to set up a campaign to struggle for justice and we struggled and we campaigned for justice and the campaign become known as a Scottish Stephen Lawrence and the family still some 13 years later their son’s racist killers are still out on the street. The investigation has been reopened now by the crown office and there is a hope for justice. But the setting up of a memorial and that sculpture in that museum was an important recognition, the recognition of a family’s struggle, of a community’s struggle which is a part of our modern history which is actually rarely spoken about in Scotland and I think it is an important contribution that the museums have made. 

Secondly in the National Portrait Gallery which was recently renovated and opened, 2 years ago I was asked whether I’d agree to a portrait. I’m not normally shy about going on TV or getting my photo taken but when I had to sit for the Portrait Gallery I was like "what do you mean?" and they said "oh we’d like to take a portrait of you in your working environment" and very quickly that changed to "can we take a portrait of you and your family". The Portrait Gallery, what they were doing, was setting up an exhibition which was about the contribution of Scotland’s immigrant community, the Asian community arriving in Glasgow, making it their home. As a result of which my wife and me dressed in our wedding outfits, had our son which was born well after the wedding sitting in between us with a milk bottle in his mouth and there was various portraits of other people, 10 families from Glasgow and around from Scotland that have made a contribution. For me it was extremely important that it was the very first time that I was able to take my family to a museum and say look there’s part of our culture, there’s a recognition of the role that my family, the contribution that my community made to Scotland and it was an important one and I think that it’s a story that makes it relevant for future generations. 

A prime example of this can be seen for instance the exhibitions in the Royal Armouries. Where there was topics like landmines that were tackled, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the violence that was expressed in contemporary art, the role that stopped the war, etc whereas I remember during the 70s and 80s it seemed very much a glorification of war, a glorification of violence and then for me what stood out was the display about gun crime, its affects on the community. It was supported by the police, it was supported by youth services and it displays also about knife crime about targeting all sections of our community and targeting specifically those at risk from becoming involved in the criminal justice system. When you consider the aftermath of such violent crime on the victim, the perpetrators and the community has an incredibly important role to play. I know when in Glasgow where knife crime is one of the highest in Europe, where we see the aftermath of the victim, where we see the aftermath of the accused, where we see a culture where young people are willing to carry knifes simply to defend themselves but very quickly that can turn into the use of the knives and again it comes back to the question, how do you value that experience, how do you value that impact that display has on young people in our community. 

There what I’d say numbers don’t count as in whether it be 5 people that walk through the door, whether it be 100, whether it be 1 million that walk through, it’s the quality of the experience that counts and the impact it has on the community. It might not tackle gun crime, it might not tackle knife crime but at least its relevant to the young community and its actually trying to be part of a solution. 

I think museums have over the last decade worked extremely hard to challenge the negative perceptions of museums as being remote, as being boring and irrelevant. We have seen millions of people from cross sections of society attend the renovated Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow and for me one of the most important turning points for me I started off with talking about Liverpool and the Afro Caribbean community and the experience of the Black community. One of the most important turning points for me has been in my home city of Liverpool. 

I’ve been in Glasgow now since 1986 but my family still remains in Liverpool and when they opened the International Slavery Museum in 2007 on the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. The director said at the time, David Fleming, it will provoke doubt in those who believe that some races are superior to others, in those that believe that all men and women should have equality of opportunity and rejoice in mutual respect. It will create hope in people of African descent and perhaps especially in those who are descended from those who were enslaved. It will promote grief, but also pride, pride in doggedness and strength and spirit of their ancestors which enabled them to survive the horrors of slavery and to pass on down the centuries that spirit which endures in many other people in that room tonight. Our hope and expectation that our young people will through the studying of the evils of transatlantic slavery and other contemporary systems of human rights abuse come to reject racism as an iniquitous, inicious and bankrupt ideology. 

That for me is a museum that was built with a mission that actually tied in to the community and the community that represented all communities. At its heart is a rage that racists actually still walk the streets of Liverpool, that walk the streets throughout this whole country and that the people of Africa and Caribbean still live in chronic poverty and it’s a museum that’s not neutral, it's controversial, its succeeded in taking the past right up to the present date and it strives for social justice. 

For Liverpool this actually was unknown until 2007, it was a story that was untold, the legacy of the slave trade, the stories of rebellion, the stories of bravery amongst millions of people that were enslaved by this country. Liverpool for 300 years of course was a major slave port, one and a half million enslaved Africans were carried by ships, that’s 10% of the slaves that were carried by this country. The museum quotes the former slave William Prescott asking us to remember not that we are freed but that we fought and that was a radical shift when you consider the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade and most of the stuff we saw on television for instance was focused on the actions of a few white abolitionists, relegating the lives of the slaves to passing victims. 

This museum actually told the stories of the slaves fighting back, of them resisting, making clear how slavery has left us with a legacy of racism and third world poverty and it highlighted the way that slavery actually shaped the city of Liverpool and it was committed to remembering the struggles of those slaves against the oppressors. The abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807 is part of the timeline that takes place in this museum but it starts with the creation of the slave trade, it then goes on to the creation of the first free slave state that fought back against Napoleon, it fought back against the French army then the British army and eventually led to the creation of the first free state Haiti under the freed slave army leader (Tusang Lu vitor) and then that is followed of course by the various other struggles that took place, the question of what happened in America and in 1807 of course William Wilberforce’s role is in it but is simply one point on a timeline of history and it’s important that it shows of relevance in connecting with our communities. 

The timeline of course continues up until modern day, it contains references to the rights of the Civil Rights movement and racist mud is in the last decade. One of the most striking parts is a sculpture when you enter that museum which was created in Haiti, the first republic, as a result of the slave revolt and the sculptor stated: 

“people don’t have chains on their arms and legs now, but people still have chains in their minds and when you have problems getting enough food, housing and education, you are not living in a free country”. 

It’s hard to put into words actually what that museum meant to people in our community. How deeply an exhibit such as that affects people of Liverpool and that of course is a new reality for museums up and down this country. Of course, and I say this with respect but, there is a new reality for museums because of course looting other countries for their cultural riches is now frowned upon. I’ve dealt with clients who have been accused of doing that. It becomes much more expensive to acquire such objects than simply just walking into a country and taking it 300/400 years ago and then sticking in a museum and saying that’s ours because now you have to pay for them and if its smuggled in you have to return them.

So that means museums have new challenges, they have to connect with their communities and their identity and another example I would wish to use is the holocaust exhibition that opened up in London’s Imperial War Museum. It is an incredibly important contribution that the past can make to the present, it’s a story of the struggle of humanity, the story of the struggle for justice, for freedom against all odds and that display conveys the horror which is as relevant today when people think this is the past we’re talking about why are we talking about the holocaust. But the horror of the Nazis attempt to murder the entire Jewish population of Europe during the Second World War. It counters the would be Adolf Hitlers of today, the would be Nazi parties, the far right parties, the British National Party who want to win support today and it actually takes them on because what it does is it photographs, it provides recorded interviews with the Jewish communities from eastern Poland, from Russia, from Germany in 1920s and 30s who all become entrapped in the Nazis genocidal programme. It covers the period from Hitler’s seizure from power in 1933 to the Second World War. It actually explains that Adolf Hitler didn’t win the full vote in Germany, it’s not the case that all Germans voted for Adolf Hitler, it explains how Germany’s elite actually decided to hand power to him because they thought they could control him and news reels then go on to show how the Nazis linked anti Semitic images with propaganda calling for the destruction of the left of working class communities and you see increasingly brutal anti Jewish laws were passed as the Nazis drew on fake scientific racist ideas at the time in the drive for racial purity and how in that exhibition you see how the Nazis ordered the euthanasia of those that they deemed mentally or physically unfit to be members of the master race. Disabled people, gay people, the roma-gypsys are shown to be victims of Nazi policies. Then you see also the concentration camps, how they were set up to crush political opposition, how the death camps were industrialised killing centres and it also raises which I think is relevant as much today the important question what knowledge the allies had as we approach remembrance Sunday and a great deal of hypocrisy will be spoken alongside the memories of those who actually gave up their lives fighting fascism but a great deal of hypocrisy is spoken today by world leaders, by our government leaders about we should remember back to what knowledge the allied powers had of the holocaust, of the indifference of Britain and the united states to the plight of the Jewish people in Europe of that time. 

One brilliant section actually exposes this, the 1938 Evian conference which is as relevant today when you read some of the rubbish and bile that we have to read in the tabloid papers on a day in day out basis. When France, Britain and other countries threw up barriers to Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany. The Times of the 18th July 1938 declared Evian has done its work admirably. The Daily Express said there is no room for Jewish people here in Britain. Now if you replace those words with asylum seekers, if you replace those words with Muslims they’re as relevant as they were today and many of those people that were talked about in the Evian conference in 1938 were turned away and in later years were exterminated in death camps. 

Tied to the holocaust memorial is an impressive educational programme for young people and I think this display is a prime example of what museums and what people in your industry are capable of achieving and the relevance of the struggles for justice. As I said times are tough, museums across the country are under threat and there is slash funding for what are called non national museums meaning that many of course will lose their grants. You have for instance in Manchester the Peoples History Museum which documents working class people fights for democracy actually has the world’s biggest collection of trade union banners. There is a National Coal Mining Museum which was set up after the great miners’ strike, it has items such as banners and badges and documents. The mining way of life, now for me I’m not shy of being controversial, the Tory government or the past Tory government might well have put the miners on the dole but it seems to me as thought they now want to wipe them out of history and I don’t think that’s acceptable. We need museums to be relevant to the communities that they actually operate in to the deprived, the poor, the new communities, the Black and white and to promote social justice. And if possible at the end of that if we can stick the Tories in the museums then I think that would be a positive result. 

To conclude I would say I started off by talking about Liverpool and about the concept that when I grew up in the 70s and 80s of this concept of arts being high culture and cutting off the majority of people. I think even today you can go and pay £300 to see a performance at the Royal Opera House but you can also actually buy tickets for £10 for the same events. I think we need to shout from the rooftops that museums and art should be open to everyone, it’s not a question of placing a value on it, they need to be open to everyone. 

It’s important for us and for everybody out there who works in a museum and for everybody who visits museums to dispel the myths that for instance the poor, the working class are only interested in Eastenders, X factor and football. I am interested in Eastenders, X factor and football but as one of those individuals I am also interested in going to museums. In 2006 I think there was nearly 6.5 million people that visited the four Tate art galleries. No one can argue that those galleries are just for the rich and what at one stage was described as low culture I would say this, it seems to be people often see on television you see various art correspondents and very posh people that give an expose or an analysis on what this means or what that means half the time it goes over my head but what I’m conscious is that there seems to be this snobbishness about discussing low culture and high culture and I’d say this. Often it’s the case that low culture is usually appropriated by the establishment many many years later and the prime example of this is were the jazz pioneers of Duke Ellington, Billy Holiday who developed out of the night clubs of Harlem. At the time in the United States it was regarded as good time music, today it’s regarded by some as high art and I think we should get rid of such pretentious terms and for our children’s future and our children’s children’s future I want everyone to have the chance to see the paintings of Raphael, to see the stuffed Elvis in Kelvingrove Museum, to learn of the slave trade, of the dinosaurs and Rabbie Burns and to open the doors of museums and create a society where art and history can bloom.

Thank you.