Redefining Heritage: English Heritage’s Commitment to Addressing Slavery and Colonialism

Nick Merriman, the incoming head of English Heritage, emphasizes the need for museums and heritage organizations to incorporate the legacy of slavery and colonialism into their narratives.

In a bold move towards redefining the way history is presented, English Heritage’s new chief executive, Nick Merriman, has called for a comprehensive exploration of the country’s colonial past. Merriman believes that stories of slavery and empire should form an integral part of the mainstream narrative of British history, going beyond specific artifacts or properties directly linked to these aspects. With this approach, English Heritage aims to provide a more nuanced and complex understanding of the nation’s heritage.

Expanding the Narrative:

Challenging the Status Quo

According to Merriman, the inclusion of slavery and empire in historical narratives is not an act of political correctness or an attempt to rewrite history. Instead, it is an essential aspect of presenting a more accurate and comprehensive account of the past. By expanding the range of narratives, English Heritage seeks to introduce more complexity and depth, offering visitors a deeper understanding of the historical context.

A Shift in Perspective

Merriman’s vision extends beyond historic properties, statues, or artifacts with direct links to slavery and imperialism. He calls for a broader examination of the country’s colonial legacy, urging all heritage organizations to incorporate the stories of slavery and empire into the biographies of objects within their collections. This approach aims to shed light on the colonial networks that facilitated the acquisition of these objects, encouraging critical reflection on the violence and exploitation that often accompanied their creation.

Restitution and Acknowledgment

Under Merriman’s leadership, the Horniman Museum returned its collection of 72 Benin City artifacts, which were looted by British forces in 1897, to Nigeria. Merriman sees such returns as an inevitable part of heritage practice, acknowledging the history of slavery and colonialism that underpins many collections in the UK. He believes that restitution should not be feared, as it will likely only address the most egregious examples of looting or inappropriate acquisition.

Contextualizing Contested Heritage

When it comes to statues and other controversial heritage, Merriman advocates for retaining these objects but placing them in a broader context. By providing a more comprehensive understanding of the individuals and events they represent, English Heritage aims to encourage dialogue and critical engagement with the past. This approach allows for a deeper exploration of history, acknowledging its painful aspects while fostering a more inclusive and diverse narrative.


English Heritage’s new chief executive, Nick Merriman, is determined to redefine how museums and heritage organizations present history. By incorporating the stories of slavery and colonialism into the mainstream narrative, he aims to provide a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of British history. This shift in perspective encourages critical reflection, challenges the status quo, and acknowledges the painful aspects of the past. With this commitment, English Heritage sets a precedent for other institutions to follow, ensuring that the legacy of slavery and colonialism is central to the way heritage is understood and interpreted.






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