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Bust of George III with African men removed from museum as bosses say it ‘reinforces stereotypes’

This bust of George III surrounded by two kneeling African men has been moved offsite after it was subjected to ‘frequent complaints’ about racist stereotypes

Leading historians have slammed a decision by the National Maritime museum to remove a bust of George III flanked by two kneeling African men.

The museum says the figurehead, which is understood to have been created to celebrate victory at Waterloo, was the subject of ‘frequent criticism’ and was ‘a hurtful reinforcement of stereotypes’.

Authorities at the museum determined it was no longer appropriate in its current location and it has been moved offsite after a review. 

One leading historian called the decision ‘absolutely absurd’ while a Conservative MP has said he will make a formal complaint to the culture secretary

The bust, which is made of mahogany, was once the figurehead on the Royal George Yacht which was built in Deptford Dockyard and launched in 1815 and had been on display at the museum for more than a decade.

Most recently, it made up part of an exhibition called ‘The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire, Enslavement and Resistance’ before it was moved to its conservation studio at a site in Kidbrooke, south east London.

In it’s place, the museum have installed an explanatory plaque which reads: ‘For many visitors and staff, its imagery of a powerful white king with two subservient black men is a hurtful reinforcement of enduring racial stereotypes.

‘Monarchs are typically portrayed as the dominant figure, with others shown in a secondary and more deferential stance.

‘However this figurehead is often seen as celebrating the role of white people in ending slavery.

‘Such images overshadow the determined actions and huge sacrifices of black people to achieve this goal.’

The museum said the Black Lives Matter protests in June last year hastened its decision to remove the bust from display. 

The figurehead had been on display at the National Maritime Museum (pictured) for more than a decade but has now been moved to its conservation studio at a different site in Kidbrooke

The figurehead had been on display at the National Maritime Museum (pictured) for more than a decade but has now been moved to its conservation studio at a different site in Kidbrooke

The bust, which is made of mahogany, was once the figurehead of the Royal George yacht

The bust, which is made of mahogany, was once the figurehead of the Royal George yacht

The museum’s catalogue says the context and symbolism of the bust remains unclear and said some have speculated in the past that it may serve as a celebration for the abolition of slavery.

The yacht was launched a decade after parliamentary legislation abolished the British slave trade in 1807. 

The reasoning behind the anti-slavery claim is that it bears slight resemblance to the famous kneeling figure used as an image by anti-slavery campaigner Josiah Wedgewood. 

But the museum reiterates that it is ‘very unlikely’ that such political iconography would be installed on a royal yacht.

The catalogue gives the more likely symbolism as: ‘While they may represent vanquished foes begging for mercy from the victor, it is more likely that they are ‘supporters’ in the heraldic sense, with their supplicant pose designed further to elevate the monarch’s regal status.’

A spokesman for the museum said: ‘The Atlantic Worlds gallery opened in 2007 and has been under review since 2019. The figurehead of HMY Royal George (1817) was removed in August 2020.

The museum said some commentators had drawn comparisons to this image used by anti-slavery campaigner Josiah Westwood but that any resemblance is likely to be coincidental

The museum said some commentators had drawn comparisons to this image used by anti-slavery campaigner Josiah Westwood but that any resemblance is likely to be coincidental

‘Research into the iconography of George III suggests more strongly and persuasively that it commemorates victory over Napoleon in 1815 rather than celebrating Britain’s abolition of its slave trade in 1807, making the object inappropriate for the slavery and abolition section of the gallery.

‘This was specifically highlighted, and correctly brought to our attention, during the summer of 2020.’

Critics have slammed the decision with leading historians branding it ‘absolutely absurd’.

Sir John Hayes, chair of the Common Sense Group of backbench Tory MPs, told the Sunday Telegraph he will write to the Culture Secretary, Olive Dowden to make a formal complaint.

The group was set up by a number of Conservative MPs in response to what they called the rise in ‘extreme cultural and political groups’ such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion and believe they are ‘subversives fuelled by ignorance and an arrogant determination to erase the past and dictate the future’.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Black, emeritus professor of history at Exeter University and biographer of King George III, said the decision was ‘absolutely absurd’ and that the argument could be used to ‘denigrate just about everyone in British history if you were so minded’.

Earlier this week, a charitable foundation confirmed it will move a statue of Guy's Hospital founder Thomas Guy (pictured) to a less prominent position because of his links to slave trade

Earlier this week, a charitable foundation confirmed it will move a statue of Guy’s Hospital founder Thomas Guy (pictured) to a less prominent position because of his links to slave trade

It comes days a charitable foundation confirmed a statue of Thomas Guy outside Guy’s Hospital will be moved because of his links to slavery.

The decision has been agreed by the Guy’s and St Thomas’ foundation – of which the hospital is the main beneficiary – despite its consultation revealing that 75 per cent of those who responded felt the statue should remain in place.

In a statement issued with their report, the foundation said the gesture was proposed in a bid to ‘address the legacies’ of slavery and to make the hospital ‘more welcoming to everyone’.

A separate statue of hospital benefactor Sir Robert Clayton, who also has links to Britain’s colonial past, will remain in place as it was decided the position was less prominent.

But the foundation confirmed both statues will be displayed with accompanying plaques detailing their ties to the slave trade.

It comes as Goldsmiths University of London launched public consultation on plans to remove four statues including Lord Nelson and Francis Drake. 

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