Whose history?

Professor Sasha Roseneil and Professor Matthew J Smith discuss UCL’s efforts in ‘decolonisation’ – addressing the dominance of the white, Western, male point of view in academia

Illustration of Professor Sasha Roseneil and Professor Matthew J Smith. Sasha is mid conversation

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

In a recent survey organised by the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) Foundation, only 23% of respondents supported decolonising the curriculum. However, when asked about broadening the curriculum to take in people, events, materials and subjects from across the world, 67% approved and just 4% were against. “While the word ‘decolonising’ might push some people’s buttons, there is significant public support for global, inclusive approaches that expand what is studied and taught,” says Professor Sasha Roseneil. “We have large numbers of Black and minority-ethnic students at UCL, and their networks and communities are very supportive of this approach.”

“UCL’s impetus around decolonising the curriculum has been led by our students,” she continues. “They’ve asked the important questions. Why are there so few Black members of staff? Why is the curriculum so Western, white and male? UCL has addressed these with a major cross-institutional project around rethinking our curriculum so that Western, white world views are no longer at its centre.”

Professor Matthew J Smith picks up the narrative, explaining that Black and area studies are at the heart of this approach. “When looking at the histories, stories and contributions to knowledge from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and Asia, you see how these should be taught and understood on their own terms,” he says. For him, research is as important as expanding the canon of what is taught, be that by encouraging different dissertation topics or alternative methods of archival research. “You need that dialogue between the research output and the teaching – conversations among colleagues in different areas, sharing their reading lists and knowledge – to really make it work,” he says.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

In a recent survey organised by the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) Foundation, only 23% of respondents supported decolonising the curriculum. However, when asked about broadening the curriculum to take in people, events, materials and subjects from across the world, 67% approved and just 4% were against. “While the word ‘decolonising’ might push some people’s buttons, there is significant public support for global, inclusive approaches that expand what is studied and taught,” says Professor Sasha Roseneil. “We have large numbers of Black and minority-ethnic students at UCL, and their networks and communities are very supportive of this approach.”

“UCL’s impetus around decolonising the curriculum has been led by our students,” she continues. “They’ve asked the important questions. Why are there so few Black members of staff? Why is the curriculum so Western, white and male? UCL has addressed these with a major cross-institutional project around rethinking our curriculum so that Western, white world views are no longer at its centre.”

Professor Matthew J Smith picks up the narrative, explaining that Black and area studies are at the heart of this approach. “When looking at the histories, stories and contributions to knowledge from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and Asia, you see how these should be taught and understood on their own terms,” he says. For him, research is as important as expanding the canon of what is taught, be that by encouraging different dissertation topics or alternative methods of archival research. “You need that dialogue between the research output and the teaching – conversations among colleagues in different areas, sharing their reading lists and knowledge – to really make it work,” he says.

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

In a recent survey organised by the University Partnerships Programme (UPP) Foundation, only 23% of respondents supported decolonising the curriculum. However, when asked about broadening the curriculum to take in people, events, materials and subjects from across the world, 67% approved and just 4% were against. “While the word ‘decolonising’ might push some people’s buttons, there is significant public support for global, inclusive approaches that expand what is studied and taught,” says Professor Sasha Roseneil. “We have large numbers of Black and minority-ethnic students at UCL, and their networks and communities are very supportive of this approach.”

“UCL’s impetus around decolonising the curriculum has been led by our students,” she continues. “They’ve asked the important questions. Why are there so few Black members of staff? Why is the curriculum so Western, white and male? UCL has addressed these with a major cross-institutional project around rethinking our curriculum so that Western, white world views are no longer at its centre.”

Professor Matthew J Smith picks up the narrative, explaining that Black and area studies are at the heart of this approach. “When looking at the histories, stories and contributions to knowledge from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and Asia, you see how these should be taught and understood on their own terms,” he says. For him, research is as important as expanding the canon of what is taught, be that by encouraging different dissertation topics or alternative methods of archival research. “You need that dialogue between the research output and the teaching – conversations among colleagues in different areas, sharing their reading lists and knowledge – to really make it work,” he says.

“Histories should be taught and understood on their own terms”

Professor Matthew J Smith

“Histories should be taught and understood on their own terms”

Professor Matthew J Smith

“Histories should be taught and understood on their own terms”

Professor Matthew J Smith

Archival research at the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery has had far-reaching results. “At its conception in 2009, the centre’s focus was to reinscribe the history of slavery into British history,” says Professor Smith, appointed as Director in 2020. The remit of the initial project was to examine and digitise the records of the £20 million paid by Britain in Compensation to former slave owners at emancipation in 1833. “The research team looked at who was compensated and how they reinvested that money, not just in business but in the arts, homes and various aspects of British life, to demonstrate the way in which the slavery business was a major driver in the British economy leading into the Industrial Revolution,” he says. Completed in 2013, the project’s database has had more than two million users to date and provides fresh insight into how the legacies of slavery reach into the present.

Professor Smith’s focus for the centre now is to tell the stories of those enslaved. “We have registers of the names of 650,000 people,” he says, “but how do we tell their stories in a way that links to 21st-century thinking about the formation of race, genealogy and their connections to people in the present?” One way is to empower communities to shape their own stories. Professor Smith plans to put out a call for people to work on indexing the registers both here and in the Caribbean, hosting virtual workshops and conferences with them. “If we have people from St Elizabeth in Jamaica working on records from that area, they can add their community history,” he says. “There is a thirst for much more exploration of Black British history and genealogy. This project will be a major contribution to personal individual histories, but also to broader historical research on Black lives.”

Archival research at the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery has had far-reaching results. “At its conception in 2009, the centre’s focus was to reinscribe the history of slavery into British history,” says Professor Smith, appointed as Director in 2020. The remit of the initial project was to examine and digitise the records of the £20 million paid by Britain in Compensation to former slave owners at emancipation in 1833. “The research team looked at who was compensated and how they reinvested that money, not just in business but in the arts, homes and various aspects of British life, to demonstrate the way in which the slavery business was a major driver in the British economy leading into the Industrial Revolution,” he says. Completed in 2013, the project’s database has had more than two million users to date and provides fresh insight into how the legacies of slavery reach into the present.

Professor Smith’s focus for the centre now is to tell the stories of those enslaved. “We have registers of the names of 650,000 people,” he says, “but how do we tell their stories in a way that links to 21st-century thinking about the formation of race, genealogy and their connections to people in the present?” One way is to empower communities to shape their own stories. Professor Smith plans to put out a call for people to work on indexing the registers both here and in the Caribbean, hosting virtual workshops and conferences with them. “If we have people from St Elizabeth in Jamaica working on records from that area, they can add their community history,” he says. “There is a thirst for much more exploration of Black British history and genealogy. This project will be a major contribution to personal individual histories, but also to broader historical research on Black lives.”

Archival research at the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery has had far-reaching results. “At its conception in 2009, the centre’s focus was to reinscribe the history of slavery into British history,” says Professor Smith, appointed as Director in 2020. The remit of the initial project was to examine and digitise the records of the £20 million paid by Britain in Compensation to former slave owners at emancipation in 1833. “The research team looked at who was compensated and how they reinvested that money, not just in business but in the arts, homes and various aspects of British life, to demonstrate the way in which the slavery business was a major driver in the British economy leading into the Industrial Revolution,” he says. Completed in 2013, the project’s database has had more than two million users to date and provides fresh insight into how the legacies of slavery reach into the present.

Professor Smith’s focus for the centre now is to tell the stories of those enslaved. “We have registers of the names of 650,000 people,” he says, “but how do we tell their stories in a way that links to 21st-century thinking about the formation of race, genealogy and their connections to people in the present?” One way is to empower communities to shape their own stories. Professor Smith plans to put out a call for people to work on indexing the registers both here and in the Caribbean, hosting virtual workshops and conferences with them. “If we have people from St Elizabeth in Jamaica working on records from that area, they can add their community history,” he says. “There is a thirst for much more exploration of Black British history and genealogy. This project will be a major contribution to personal individual histories, but also to broader historical research on Black lives.”

“There is public support for global, inclusive approaches”

Professor Sasha Roseneil

“There is public support for global, inclusive approaches”

Professor Sasha Roseneil

“There is public support for global, inclusive approaches”

Professor Sasha Roseneil

Professor Smith believes that media debate around decolonisation is not affecting the level of connection and interest in the work of the centre. “People want to get things right. Institutions consult with us to ensure that when they examine their legacies of slavery, they do it correctly. Now we want to go further than that by including more international connections, more public engagement, more collaborative work and the involvement of a citizen history.”

Professor Roseneil adds that this work reflects UCL’s commitment to public history (which seeks to make history accessible and useful, and can help people to write and understand their own), which includes a new Master’s programme at UCL East. “Public history has been going on for some years – alongside writing journal articles, our historians engage with radio, TV and film. But it’s at the heart of the department’s mission now. We’re planning resources for the collecting of oral histories and the digitising of collections. By providing spaces for public engagement, we will bring people from the community together with academics and students to work on public-history projects.”

The UCL Institute of Archaeology is branching out here, too. “Our new interdisciplinary BA Heritage programme, led by Professor Rodney Harrison, also at UCL East, is very much in the decolonising space,” says Professor Roseneil. “We recently signed a partnership with the National Trust to provide our expertise in rethinking its collections. How do you present stately homes and gardens to the British public who desire different stories to be told about these spaces?”

Sasha Roseneil is Pro-Provost (Equity and Inclusion), Executive Dean of the UCL Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences, and Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science in the Institute of Advanced Studies

Matthew J Smith is Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery

Illustration Oriana Fenwick

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

Professor Smith believes that media debate around decolonisation is not affecting the level of connection and interest in the work of the centre. “People want to get things right. Institutions consult with us to ensure that when they examine their legacies of slavery, they do it correctly. Now we want to go further than that by including more international connections, more public engagement, more collaborative work and the involvement of a citizen history.”

Professor Roseneil adds that this work reflects UCL’s commitment to public history (which seeks to make history accessible and useful, and can help people to write and understand their own), which includes a new Master’s programme at UCL East. “Public history has been going on for some years – alongside writing journal articles, our historians engage with radio, TV and film. But it’s at the heart of the department’s mission now. We’re planning resources for the collecting of oral histories and the digitising of collections. By providing spaces for public engagement, we will bring people from the community together with academics and students to work on public-history projects.”

The UCL Institute of Archaeology is branching out here, too. “Our new interdisciplinary BA Heritage programme, led by Professor Rodney Harrison, also at UCL East, is very much in the decolonising space,” says Professor Roseneil. “We recently signed a partnership with the National Trust to provide our expertise in rethinking its collections. How do you present stately homes and gardens to the British public who desire different stories to be told about these spaces?”

Sasha Roseneil is Pro-Provost (Equity and Inclusion), Executive Dean of the UCL Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences, and Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science in the Institute of Advanced Studies

Matthew J Smith is Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery

Illustration Oriana Fenwick

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.

 

Professor Smith believes that media debate around decolonisation is not affecting the level of connection and interest in the work of the centre. “People want to get things right. Institutions consult with us to ensure that when they examine their legacies of slavery, they do it correctly. Now we want to go further than that by including more international connections, more public engagement, more collaborative work and the involvement of a citizen history.”

Professor Roseneil adds that this work reflects UCL’s commitment to public history (which seeks to make history accessible and useful, and can help people to write and understand their own), which includes a new Master’s programme at UCL East. “Public history has been going on for some years – alongside writing journal articles, our historians engage with radio, TV and film. But it’s at the heart of the department’s mission now. We’re planning resources for the collecting of oral histories and the digitising of collections. By providing spaces for public engagement, we will bring people from the community together with academics and students to work on public-history projects.”

The UCL Institute of Archaeology is branching out here, too. “Our new interdisciplinary BA Heritage programme, led by Professor Rodney Harrison, also at UCL East, is very much in the decolonising space,” says Professor Roseneil. “We recently signed a partnership with the National Trust to provide our expertise in rethinking its collections. How do you present stately homes and gardens to the British public who desire different stories to be told about these spaces?”

Sasha Roseneil is Pro-Provost (Equity and Inclusion), Executive Dean of the UCL Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences, and Professor of Interdisciplinary Social Science in the Institute of Advanced Studies

Matthew J Smith is Professor of History and Director of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery

Illustration Oriana Fenwick

This article first appeared in issue 8 of Portico magazine, published November 2021.