Powell-Cotton Museum: Why now is time for significant change at our museum

Powell-Cotton Museum

At the beginning of this month (June) the Powell-Cotton Museum at Quex Estate made a prominent statement in response to the Black Lives Matter protests being staged globally.

The museum displays the collection of hunter and explorer Major Percy Powell-Cotton and those of his daughters, Antoinette and Diana Powell-Cotton. 

This began as a single-room collection in 1896 and now comprises eight galleries and a passage gallery dedicated to an extensive collection of large mammals and artefacts representing the locations Powell-Cotton visited.

The Powell-Cotton Museum has pledged to ‘decolonise’ the museum and represent its collections to readdress the balance, make space for the people on display to have a voice and show history – good and bad – with honesty and integrity.

In a statement earlier this month the museum said: “The Powell-Cotton Museum stands as an ally of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We recognise that our historic collection is steeped in racism and colonial oppression. We would like to apologise for those past actions but know that an apology is not enough.

“We acknowledge that today we remain a predominately white workforce that does not reflect our audiences or the communities represented in our collections.

“This statement is a public declaration that we recognise these failings and the need for real change. To this end we have instituted a broad and in-depth programme of de-colonising our museum and re-presenting its collections.”

The work is the start of public engagement on a strategy that has been going on behind the scenes at the museum for the last 18 months.

In their own words the Powell-Cotton Museum team explain what they hope to do and why:

“Over the coming weeks we’ll be answering key questions on why we think now is the moment for significant change in our museum. We’re starting by examining the history of museums, what it means to decolonise a museum, and why we should do it.

Museums sprung up across Britain in the 19th century in a close-knit relationship to Empire. Merchants used museums to learn about products they could exploit in the colonies and soldiers and colonial administrators used museums to learn about the places they were to govern. Back home, museums were propaganda, providing the British public with evidence of why the British Empire was good and necessary.

So, whilst museums were filled with the art, craft, heritage, natural resources, ideas and identities of people and places globally, the way they were exhibited and talked about with the public was always from a European point of view. This European perspective was often derogatory, racist and almost never included the opinions of the people being represented. It was a view of the world intended to cement and justify White, European domination.

If museums were built as tools for colonial expansion, what might a decolonised museum look like today? Decolonising the Museum aims to address the silences of the past, acknowledging privilege and adjusting balances of power. It is a process of returning context – if museums are going to talk about colonial exploration and expansion, the discussion needs to be inclusive and transparent, looking at how it affected everyone, not just those people who gifted objects to museums.

Museums today are places of social change. They need to work in collaboration with communities and not just for communities, where they continue to make all the decisions. People represented in museum displays often have no voice, no self-representation, because of hundreds of years of prejudice. With overwhelmingly White European workforces, it is not just a case of museums ‘doing’ decolonisation themselves, but about making sure communities represented in museums, and who visit museums, can speak on their own terms.

  • In short, we think decolonisation is:
    Readdressing the balance and making space for the people on display in our museums to have a voice within the telling of their own stories, past and present.
  • Putting collections into their colonial context.
  • Honesty and integrity in our interpretation.
  • Not excusing the past.
  • Acknowledging colonialism’s continuing impact.
  • Accepting that museums are not ‘universal’ – they don’t serve everyone equally, but they should.
  • Accepting that museums are not neutral spaces presenting ‘facts’. For over 100 years museums have made very conscious decisions about what to say and what to keep hidden. Museums are NOT neutral.

We also think decolonisation is not:

  • Demonising White Europeans or removing them from our stories
  • Simplifying history to good and bad.
  • Political correctness ‘gone mad’.

As always we value your contributions to the discussion and if you have any further questions please feel free to email [email protected]

Find the Powell-Cotton Museum on facebook here


  1. I am surprised the museum doing this in that part of the world and before should not be blamed they people sold their own into slavery.look at the Egyptians the used Christians into slavery to build the pyramids. The Romans had slaves to build there cities and in this country.sold Christians into slavery people say today they done a lot of good in the UK. This was done by using slaves to build Roman roads and Hadrian’s wall.History should not be wiped out.

    • Actually, the Egyptians didn’t use Christians, they used Jews, this was centuries before Christianity existed. The Romans used slaves from right across their Empire, both before and after the Christian period. No slaves built Roman roads, nor were likely to have built their cities. All ancient cultures and nations across the globe used slaves but that does not excuse the practice. We need to reference it’s practice where relevant and make changes if deemed necessary.

    • NO Christians when the pyramids were constructed (3rd millenium BC) – and,there is conclusively primary source evidence that the workforce that built the pyramids was a combination of corvee labour and skilled artisnas,with both groups being paid for their work.

  2. History is history. We cannot turn back time. BLM protestors want the world to change to suit them. They could start the process off by doing something to stop the thousands of black lives that are killed each year at the hands of other blacks. Don’t those lives matter as well? I have only been to the Powell-Cotton museum once, that was once too many. To think all those creatures were killed for nothing more than sheer pleasure and greed from displaying them to paying visitors.

    • Sadly you exactly sure why BLM is so important you totally misunderstand. BLM do not want to change history to suit ‘them’ (btw who are ‘them’?) It’s too recognise the real history the talk facts behind and not to shy away from those uncomfortable facts.

      It’s those that want to deny mad slavery and the UK’s make part in itt or those that try to excuse itt by talking about Romans had slaves or Egyptians hand slaves as if that then makes what our ancestors did as ok and acceptable. Those are the people that want to change history and deny the truth.

      Let’s all face the facts face on honestly and without prejudice then we can move forward in a fairer more requital society

  3. Totally agree Ann history is history. Are they going to remove all exhibits in all the world wide well known museums going to do this just to satisfy them You see every day on TV and wildlife programmes and charities trying to wipe out all wild life in Africa look at the slaughtering of elephants rhino for their ivory and killing of monkeys apes by black criminal poaching. They don’t say anything about that.

  4. Would the museum have carried out this transformation if there had been no Black Lives Matter protests? Are we in danger of only keeping good history?

  5. What a strange , grumbling, resentful conversation has been sparked off by the Powell-Cotton museum’s decision to revisit the basis of their work.
    Isn’t that what museums are supposed to do? To interpret the past in different ways that make their collections relevant to us.

    Is it not possible to even speculate that Britain may have been involved in morally-debatable behaviour in the past? That mass slavery may have been a nasty and cruel practice no matter who organised it?
    And that it is no defence to say “well the Romans did it as well!”
    We haven’t got that many museums devoted to Roman matters and even the few that reference Roman behaviour probably don’t gloss over such an abomination as slavery.
    And historians tend to look at the Roman’s need for food and other materials as the stimulus for their imperial expansion.
    So why can’t we acknowledge that the British Empire was also a land-grab for resources rather than just believe the convenient justification that it was all about bringing civilisation to the world.

    After all, personally, I wasn’t involved and certainly would not condone colonialisation now. So why should I regard Britain’s imperial past as “my history” which I am, in some way, supposed to defend because it was organised by white English people who looked a lot like me?
    Suffice to say that this country became the richest in the world on the backs of the colonised and we remain the sixth biggest world economy even now. Serious advantages in an uncertain world. So we can afford to stand back a bit and assess the historical process without getting all defensive about the immoral behaviour of imperialist British people we have never met.

  6. Keefogs, If BLM keeps making demands we will all end up naked because most of the clothes we wear in the UK are made by slave labour abroad. Instead of pulling statues down we will be pulling our pants down.

    • You say that like it’s a bad thing? Shouldn’t we try to live in a way that doesn’t rely on slave labour?

  7. Ethnic cleansing in Sudan, the Rwandan massacres, Balkan Conflicts, The Cambodian Killing Fields, Persecution of the Uigers in China, just a few examples that spring to mind in the recent past. Where is the outrage over these. If the Romans aren’t to be held accountmfor their sins , why is the UK expected to do so for its past.
    Nothing can be learnt from a delelted / rewritten past.

    • Actually all those atrocities are being spoken about. But stop referring to “the Romans” everybody please! That was 2000 years ago. This was going on less than 200 years ago and this country became the dominant world power briefly ( along with Spain and France before us) off the back of human misery it caused. And don’t forget us white brits working conditions were appalling in many of the factories also owned by the beneficiaries of Slave Trade. The rich got rich off the back of both white and black bodies- but at least in this country we could and did get the chance to walk away and eventually vote for change. If your chained up in a distant country that’s a bit difficult. It’s time for balance.

  8. Brian – you interpret the museum making changes that give context with their items as ‘wiping out history’, i feel you are missing the point. Maybe try again but say what you mean this time.

    Ann – you too appear to read too much racism-themed media. When was the last time you heard the phrase ‘white on white murder’. You have empathy for animals killed hundreds of years ago but don’t care about abuse towards humans today? You’re priorities seem a little off.

    Local chap – you too appear to see the word ‘change’ and interpret it as ‘remove’ . History isnt going anywhere.

    This last week weeks, many many people in this country have learned more about our country’s history than they ever did in school. Who knew throwing one small statue in the river would reap such rewards of historical teaching.

    To the museum – as someone who grew up in birchington i wanted to give my thoughts. I visit your gardens regularly, have visited the museum many times as a child, and now my children have also been there. To have added context to the items will be great for my childrens understanding about the history of this country, and give more meaning to the items on display. I am pleased and proud to see these changes.

  9. I remember going to visit the museum as a child it had a huge impact on me I made sure I took my children there and yes pointed out that killing the animals was wrong but at that time it was not seen as so I also made sure the huge resource it now provides for genetics of many wild animals when working to ensure their survival by ensuring a wide gene pool why do we now want to hide the past it happened what matters is we learn from it. I am sorry to say not only black people suffer racism I prefer ALL lives matter

    • It is taken for granted that ALL lives matter. This movement is about BLACK lives. If there is, for example, a breast cancer awareness campaign, would people with, say, colon cancer whine ‘ALL cancers matter’. ?

  10. This country has never been so multicultured as it is today. We should be celebrating what has been achieved since the British politician William Wilberforce began the abolition of slavery here in the UK first along with the rest of the British Empire in 1833. But slavery wasn’t just down to the UK, many other countries were at it also and most of the world was trying to conqure another country back then. The most powerful usaully won. Behaviour similar to that is mostly gone, there is a new type of slavery now with white women and children caught in it from the Eastern European block. But shouldn’t history be just what it is? We can’t change it but it doesn’t mean that we like it or agree with it. We shouldn’t choose the good or bad parts of history to suit our means for today. As a modern country the people need to look forward to better relationships together no matter what colour or culture we are. Living in peace and harmony is the type of history we should be looking forward to, not fighting or destroying things of the past. If we allow those protests to get out of hand then all that will come from it is more bloodshed, more resent and more racism. It will be a step backwards. I am sure that is not what BLM wants either. Change has been happening for the better over the last century or two and still is.

    • Slavery in England was abolished in 1381 (I’ve read the original statute.) Wilberforce convinced Parliament – including the House of Lords – to ban British involvement in the slave trade in 1807;Parliament later banned slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.

  11. The museum is neither deleting or rewriting the past. Their proposal is to put the collection within a broader context, one that tells the bigger story of where the collection came from, and how it ended up being in a large manor house in Kent. Moreover, discussions like this are a positive and enriching part of this process. When was the last time people actually talked about all those incredible objects in that museum in a such a public way? We are all adding to the story, not reducing or erasing.

    Percy Powell-Cotton was an individual of great wealth and privilege. His position within the British Empire allowed him easy passage across much of the world. His money afforded him labour wherever he went to help him gather his collection. Without the assistance of hundreds of local people the collection would not exist. The stories and voices of those people add richness and truth to the museum’s collection.

    With regards slavery, Powell-Cotton, as far as I know, was not a trader in enslaved people, but he would have benefitted from the wealth slavery generated. This, again, is part of the story. There are British people alive today whose grandparents or great-grandparents were enslaved people. This is very real, and still very unresolved. It requires dialogue, openness and education to address, and that is part of what decolonising is. It’s not something to be afraid of, but, conversely, it’s something to celebrate and gain hope from.

    It’s a positive motion forward.

    PS It’s by the by that the Romans had slaves. If you can find a Roman to be held to account then by all means let’s do it! Individuals are being tried for war crimes in all the recent conflicts mentioned above. And if Black Lives Matter has made us question whether or not we buy our socks made by exploited child labour, then that is surely to be applauded, no?

    • You state that Powell Cotton could afford labour on his travels, so those he employed also benefited from your rather tenuous linking of his wealth to slavery. No one says that slavery was right, in this country go back far enough and many of the general population were totally reliant on the local landowners and gentry, the church has had huge power through out the world and abused its powers. Will we be tearing down churches next? Many of us have no problem with peaceful protest, but pulling down statues is effectively altering history, by all means write your own books, produce film and tv , putting forward the other side of the argument as you see it.
      Banning / flagging books because they contain language of the day is absurd , there seems to be no acceptance of context.
      Much of what is seen as racism is nothing more than differentiation, i judge people on how they act , talk etc. Where thate judgement is one where the person doesn’t get what they want or they disagree , its far too easy for a racism accusation to be used when it has nothing to do with it.

      • Thank you for responding!

        I don’t know the full story of who else went on his expeditions and how they were employed – I’d welcome education on this as I think it’s important, and this is what the museum is proposing. And yes, slavery was a stain that implicated lots of people in different ways, and that’s why we need to learn more about it, and teach our children about it. It’s a fascinating lesson in history, in ethics, and in moral responsibility. And of course it’s still a live issue, from human trafficking, to the issues alluded to above about clothing…

        And yes, of course, the majority of people were reliant on the gentry for food and a home during feudal times. And we are able to learn about it in many museums, as well as at school. Most people would infer it was a pretty horrific situation.

        With regards churches, I would welcome some context sometimes. When I visited Rochester Cathedral I noticed it was full of memorials to soldiers who died during colonial campaigns in which many more indigenous people died than British, and there is silence on their losses.

        Also, I don’t think they’re planning to ban books, or remove statues.

        • In respect of the church i was alluding more to the practices of the missionaries of old, the forcible conversion in foreign lands, child sex abuse, the spanish inquisition even.
          There are untold numbers of historical abuses of power/ wealth and influence to gain unfair advantage over others, we’re running blindly into a world where anyone can find fault with anything.
          There is a complete lack of historical context and the attitudes now and since. Do i have grounds to sally forth protesting that my life chances were curtailed because my parents left school at 14 and so had no chance of a full education, as did their parents etc going back.
          No, instead it should be remembered that i was able to benefit from the education system built from the taxes and wealth their work created. Social change and improvement is a long slow process always has been always will.
          Slavery goes back way too far to be the root of todays ills for those campaigning. By all means it should be explained and taught .
          BLM is politicising too many groups that should remain neutral as organisations. Will universities and students choose to relinquish the buildings etc bestowed on them by those they choose to rail against? Some of the arguments and linguistic acrobatics being used to in some instances does a disservice to the underlying historic issues being discussed in the connection to the world today.

  12. This is more about the Museum collection. African history and culture has been decimated due to colonisation and twentieth century up upheavals. The museum has a fine collection of cultures that no longer exist. Totally agree there should be more to tell the story of lost African culture and not about European dominance of Africa.

  13. Remember going there in the 1980’s-the place stunk of mothballs that made you want to retch, the animals mounted heads also made me nauseous. The only fun thing was looking at the nudes on the slide thing they had.

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