Museum Studies Blog

Posted on June 19th, 2024 in Book Reviews, Student Work by jachigg | Tags:

Scotland’s Transnational Heritage: Legacies of Empire and Slavery. Edited by Emma Bond and Michael Morris. Edinburgh University Press, 2023.


book: Scotland's Transnational Heritage

Edited by Emma Bond and Michael Morris, the collection of articles featured in Scotland’s Transnational Heritage provide an eye-opening introduction to Scotland’s history as an empirical benefactor and contributor to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, as well as the ongoing decolonization efforts in cultural institutions in Scotland and across the world. The book is broken into three major themes including “Transnational Sites,” Transnational Things,” and Transnational Time(s),” and feature contributions from historians, professors, museum professionals, and more. Part I: Transnational Sites, begins with a critical analysis of the most iconic Scottish symbol, Tartan. From a symbol of the revolutionary Jacobite to the internationally recognized pattern today, Telecia Kirkland follows the history of tartan as the pattern made its way across the globe. As a result of Scottish armed forces and colonists in the British Empire’s colonies, tartan in these areas began to involve into a unique symbol of both local tradition and colonial occupation. Examples can be found is Caribbean madras cloths or skua blankets from the Maasai in Kenya. Kirkland’s research ultimately culminated in a full-scale exhibit for the Costume Institute of the African Diaspora (CIAD) titled Tartan: Its Journey through the African Diaspora. Kirkland describes the process of choosing pieces for the exhibit as well as the logistics of travelling to acquire loans for the exhibit, and the complications of displaying fragile textiles. Kirkland’s article is an informative blend of historical research and exhibit design that takes into account the audience, objects, interpretation, and more (23-37).  

Outside the traditional museum exhibit, other contributors list the variety of ways they are taking steps towards decolonizing Scotland’s history. Artist and Angus-resident Jeni Reid works on the Undiscovered Angus project to bring awareness to the city’s contributions to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Reid makes postcards that pair an idyllic Scottish landscape with an informative paragraph about slavery in Angus, and the handwritten name and age of a real enslaved person found in Angus’ records. These postcards, that Reid gifts to strangers or leaves in inconspicuous locations around the city, intrinsically link the bliss of modern life to the benefits reaped from enslaved people. Most importantly, however, they encourage people to critically analyze their current knowledge, ask questions, and learn more about Scotland and the Slave Trade (55-69).  

In Part II: Transnational Things, the various authors explore many of the physical objects reaped by colonizers. In Chapter 6, for example, Bashabi Fraser examines the history of the East India Company (EIC) and Scotland’s role in colonization. Fraser explains that many Scots made careers in the EIC, and ultimately profited off of the colonization of India. Colonization, of course, also involved the looting of precious Indian artifacts. Bashabi also analyzes how traditional museum labels of such objects contribute to a constructed colonialist history. In this article, Bashabi also explains how rewriting museum labels can contribute to decolonization efforts, and provide visitos with a less one-sided view of history (89-103). Similarly, in Chapter 7, author Sarah Laurenson analyzes Scotland’s involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade from an objects perspective. In contrast to focusing on labels, Laurenson argues that the objects themselves, and the juxtaposition of certain objects next to each other, can have a huge influence on how visitors interpret them. Laurenson explains her process for deciding to exhibit a few very different objects close to each other. The first was a set of two silver goblets from a Scottish plantation owner. The other object, also made a silver, was a branding iron used to identify enslaved people. Laurenson argues that these item represent two very different, but intrinsically intertwined, aspects of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. On one hand, the silver goblets represent the wealth and power many Scots were able to benefactors of colonization and the slave trade, and the brand represents the violence inflicted to achieve that status (104-119).  

Part III: Transnational Time(s) analyzes both the past and present in interpreting Scotland’s problematic histories. In Chapter 11, “Digital Museum Objects and Transnational Histories,” Nicôle Meehan examines how a focus on digital objects can be beneficial to collecting information about transnational objects and increasing a museum’s transparency by digitizing their collection (171-184). Outside the museum setting, the UncoverED project dives in the University of Edinburgh’s history by analyzing the lives of unrecognized alumni of color, and criticizing the University’s history of racism and colonialist ideals (185-199). While many of the authors acknowledge Scotland’s own experience as a colonized land following the Union of 1707 and failed Jacobite uprising of 1745, they also acknowledge how Scotland and many of its people were citizens of, active contributors to, and benefactors to the deadly and exploitive efforts of the British Empire.  Overall, this fine collection of articles introduces a number of efforts to change deeply ingrained perceptions of Scottish history, and provide cultural institutions with stepping stones for beginning decolonization projects. And with projects ranging from everyday people in their hometowns, to professionals in Scotland’s top museums, this book provides ideas and suggestions for anyone looking to question popular understandings of the past.  

The book ends on a hopeful aspiration: the beginnings of a repatriation effort to return the House of Ni’isjoohl pole to the Nisga’a Nation (in modern day British Columbia). Amy Parent, Nisga’a name Noxs Ts’aawit, discovered the pole was on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh after it had been illegally taken by a Canadian anthropologist in 1929 (223). In hindsight, this chapter is further evidence for the continued decolonization of Scotland’s cultural centers. As of September 2023, the Ni’isjoohl pole has been successfully rematriated to the Nisga’a. Hopefully, this insightful book will provide inspiration to other cultural institutions, both in and outside of Scotland, to critically analyze what is “known” and prioritize decolonization efforts.


Samantha Shepherd is a first year MA student in the IU Indianapolis Museum Studies Program and Digital Archivist for the State of Indiana Department of Administration.