New heritage chief reveals plans for Edinburgh to confront slavery past in public art

Christina Sinclair has been unveiled as the new director of Edinburgh World Heritage.Christina Sinclair has been unveiled as the new director of Edinburgh World Heritage.
Christina Sinclair has been unveiled as the new director of Edinburgh World Heritage.
A permanent new piece of public art reflecting Edinburgh’s part in the Caribbean slave trade and inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement is to be commissioned for the city.

The body charged with promoting Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site is to spearhead efforts to create the new work for the city’s New Town, in recognition of its many links to slavery.

Temporary works of art inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement have appeared all over Edinburgh in recent years as part of a Scotland-wide “mural trail”.

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The project to create a permanent artwork will be part of a shake-up by Edinburgh World Heritage into how the city’s past is promoted, taught and commemorated.

Temporary works of art have appeared across Edinburgh in recent weeks as part of a Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, including this work by Steven Khan at Dance Base.Temporary works of art have appeared across Edinburgh in recent weeks as part of a Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, including this work by Steven Khan at Dance Base.
Temporary works of art have appeared across Edinburgh in recent weeks as part of a Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, including this work by Steven Khan at Dance Base.

Plans for the work of art were revealed by the charity’s new director, Christina Sinclair, who has pledged to ensure its work reaches far more people in BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities in future.

Two years ago the charity staged an exhibition in the Tron Kirk which highlighted the role of the slave trade in funding the city’s rapid development in the 18th century.

Months later it hosted a lecture by Scotland’s first black professor, Geoff Palmer, on how wealthy Scots owned more slaves, more plantations and had a higher share of the transatlantic trade in plantation goods such as tobacco and sugar than England or most other European countries.

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Edinburgh World Heritage was also involved in talks with Professor Palmer and the city council over the proposed new plaque which is expected to be added to the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square to reflect the fact that Henry Dundas, whose statue sits on top of the plinth, was said to have been a key figure in trying to block the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

The facade of the City Chambers was lit up earlier this year by a short film addressing Edinbugh's links to the slave trade, created by Young Fathers star Kayus Bankole. Picture: Ian GeorgesonThe facade of the City Chambers was lit up earlier this year by a short film addressing Edinbugh's links to the slave trade, created by Young Fathers star Kayus Bankole. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The facade of the City Chambers was lit up earlier this year by a short film addressing Edinbugh's links to the slave trade, created by Young Fathers star Kayus Bankole. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Now Edinburgh World Heritage has plans to commission and lead fundraising efforts for a major new work of art, although the form it will take and the exact location are being kept under wraps.

The project is being drawn up weeks after the launch of a Black Lives Matter Mural Trail across Scotland, which now includes more than a dozen sites in Edinburgh, including the Playhouse, the Usher Hall, the Traverse Theatre and The Hub, the headquarters of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Ms Sinclair said: “One of the things we’re going to be focusing on in future is enhancing our inclusive engagement, in our project work and other areas, so that it resonates with more diverse audiences. We want that to be more meaningful and more consistent.

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“The questions and discussions in recent months are hugely important. I’m sure many people really embrace a better understanding of the city’s history. It’s not something to shy away from.

“It’s important that we keep the momentum going, that we take advantage of positive opportunities to ensure that is represented in the city. The form this takes has to come from grassroots engagement.

“We believe it’s really important to acknowledge the varied history of Edinburgh – both positive and negative.

“We don’t support the calls for the removal of the statue of Henry Dundas. We believe it is important to acknowledge the past and acknowledge our developed understanding of it. We think it’s more important to retain the monument and provide new interpretation.”

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Asked why there had been very little recognition of Edinburgh’s history of slave trading until recently, Ms Sinclair added: “I think it’s a sign of moving towards a more progressive society – people are questioning and challenging more now.”

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