How we plan to make the art in Parliament more inclusive
It is time to take a good look at what we have on our walls to make sure that we give the full story of the people depicted, writes Hywel Williams MP. | PA Images
4 min read
The Speaker’s Advisory Committee for Works of Art hold are holding a thorough review of the Parliamentary Art Collection to make sure BAME artists and subjects are represented.
Parliament has been collecting works of art for over 170 years so as to illustrate and document its history and its work. I have supported this activity through my 8 years on the Speaker’s Advisory Committee for Works of Art, and since May 2020 as its Chair.
But there is a problem with the art in Parliament. It does not reflect the great diversity of our Parliamentary community or that of the people who live on these islands. In fact, walking the corridors of the Palace of Westminster the much-quoted Martian would think that these islands have been populated mainly by white men of a certain age and status.
Some might say that this is quite proper, as these are the people who have led and shaped parliament over centuries. It is merely a reflection of fact. But behind some of these men, and their status and wealth, there is a legacy of slave trading and slave ownership. This is a legacy we must bear. However, it is also time to take a good look at what we have on our walls to make sure that we give the full story of the people depicted.
The aim of the collection is to reflect the history of Parliament, our democracy and the people who played a part in it, truthfully and as fully as we can. We must ensure the artwork is put in an appropriate, historical context. Self-evidently we also need a much more diverse and inclusive representation of Parliament. Therefore, the Committee has agreed that we should hold a full review of the Collection.
This is not about tearing down artwork, as some would see it, but about finding ways to better explain the lives of the subjects, including the controversial and unacceptable aspects of their lives. We must be honest about the history of Parliament. In so doing we will better shine a light on those parliamentarians who stood up against slavery and led the fight for its abolition.
This is the first time we are systematically reviewing the entire Collection, looking at issues around slavery and representation
At our last Committee meeting, we agreed to hold a thorough review of the Parliamentary Art Collection and the development of ways to address its deficiencies. This will include:
There will be an audit of artworks acquired in each Parliament, which depict subjects relating to Black, Asian and other ethnic minority history and life. We will publish the audit at the end of each Parliament.
We will ensure the development of a policy to increase the representation of Black, Asian and other ethnic minority artists and subjects of paintings through the Committee’s commissions.
The review will evaluate how we explain artworks and how we can increase the range of our written guides, to give a transparent and inclusive history of the artworks and their subjects.
There needs to be an update of cataloguing terms and conventions for Collection items to ensure they are inclusive and are not discriminatory, or include inappropriate or out of date language and terms.
We will consider of commissioning a significant artwork to permanently mark the impact of Parliament on Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities and/or the contribution of Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities to Parliament and its activities, for permanent display in Parliament.
This is the first time we are systematically reviewing the entire Collection, looking at issues around slavery and representation. During the process the Committee will engage with external specialists and experts to ensure the review takes a range of viewpoints into consideration.
The Committee is determined to improve the diversity of the Parliamentary Art Collection, both as to the people portrayed and the artists commissioned, to ensure that the Collection reflects and celebrates the diversity of all who contribute to Parliament. This has been a key part of our strategy since 2016. I know we can do more.
The review will help make the Parliamentary Estate more diverse and inclusive by better honouring the contributions of both past and present parliamentarians of Black, Asian or other ethnic minority heritage. But with over 9,500 works of art in the Collection, there is much work to be done.
I do not see this review merely as just another task to be completed. Rather it will be a new foundation for our work, and for the work of those who care for the collection, ensuring inclusivity, proper representation and interpretation for all.
Hywel Williams is the Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon and chair of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art.
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