Hunterian, University of Glasgow | Curating Discomfort

Steph Scholten

Director, The Hunterian

Zandra Yeaman

Curator of Discomfort, The Hunterian

Hunterian, University of Glasgow

University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, Scotland, UK

Museums Association UK / Reimagining the Museum Award 2022






Introduction – William Hunter and The Hunterian

The first Hunterian Museum opened in 1807, making it the oldest public museum in Scotland. The Hunterian is the legacy of Dr William Hunter (1718 - 1783), who found fame and fortune in London as physician to Queen Charlotte and as a teacher of anatomy. He built up a vast private collection which he bequeathed to the University in 1783, along with money to create a suitable museum. The University and The Hunterian moved to its present location in 1870, where the museum remains today. The collections have grown to c. 1.5 million objects and The Hunterian now operates a Museum, an Art Gallery, a Zoology and an Anatomy Museum and a collections study centre.

For Hunter’s 300th anniversary in 2018 a large exhibition was conceived that later also travelled to the Yale Centre for British Art in the US. Critically revisiting The Hunterian’s founding collections, all steeped in history and deeply connected to the colonial history of the British Empire, made us literally feel uncomfortable about many things, from anatomical specimen to items from James Cook’s Pacific voyages, enhanced by the conversations that we invited with a number of ‘critical friends’. It was when the concept of our Curating Discomfort approach was born. We worked on the concept internally for over a year, considering all protected characteristics as we the are called in the UK: Race, Gender, Sex, Disability, Age, and more.


Hunterian Museum Curating Discomfort


Curating Discomfort

In 2020 that we were able to raise funds from Museums Galleries Scotland and started the, initially, 18 months project. We recruited for a project lead when the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum. Zandra Yeaman, an experienced human rights activist from Glasgow, was appointed as The Hunterian’s Curator of Discomfort. Anti-racism became the main focal point.

The project was designed with a strong focus on community engagement, including working in its first phase the internal community of The Hunterian, to learn about the mechanisms that drive inequalities in our society, especially the systemic racism that pervades every aspect of it. There is a short video on The Hunterian’s website that summarises it. At the same time, Zandra also worked with a number of other museums in Scotland, with Museums Galleries Scotland and with university units. The workshops shaped curating discomfort. Museum professionals identifying the issues internally, enabled us to think about the actions needed to transform and change museum practice. And we wrote a new, 5-year strategy for The Hunterian that we launched early 2021. It promotes a values-based approach that centres staff and primary stakeholders, aiming to make The Hunterian a more relevant and meaningful place for everyone.

Deeply embedded at the heart of the strategy is the equality, inclusion and diversity work that we plan to do in this 5-year period. Curating Discomfort helped us to shape the beginning of a long journey that will shape The Hunterian for decades to come. We realise that once you embark on such a journey, there is no turning back. This is a long-term commitment.

As a third project step, we invited a group of six people to form the Community Curators group. They come from different geographical backgrounds and have been in Glasgow for different lengths of time. They are academics, community activists, social justice campaigners and educators. They speak to this work as individuals with different interests and priorities. Over six months, they operated as a community to curate an “intervention”, which is on display in the museum, as a visible and public outcome of the project. The importance of this was to allow for conversations on intersectionality, on the hierarchy of systemic racism.

The essence of this intervention for us was to learn to share power while co-producing additional, new narratives, new layers of interpretation. That may sound simple but is actually quite difficult and it would take another paper to go into more detail of this. The Community Curators had the authority, knowledge and expertise to lead the production of an intervention in our permanent displays, supported by our permanent Hunterian curators. There were many conversations, some of which we recorded and can be found on The Hunterian’s website.

Hunterian Museum interior


What is important for us is to call the new display an intervention, not an exhibition. It’s in the heart of our museum and, literally, speaks to all else that is in the space. [IMAGE] It adds new layers to the narratives we have told in the past 15 years or so. It has a striking design that sets it apart from what is already there, with bold colours. It is flexible, so it can easily be changed. There is a section that explains what the project is about and that includes a Declaration of Discomfort:

“Most museums are monuments to a system that privileges some people over others and creates a narrative about the identity of nations or cities that institutions seek to project and protect. Museums hold collections from donors who benefited from the practice of racial slavery, violent endeavours, forced removal and the systematic oppression of indigenous peoples. Museums are political places.

‘Curating Discomfort’ puts forward discomforting provocations and interventions to help us to understand that museums have perpetuated ideologies of white supremacy: a political, economic and cultural system in which white western ideas control the power of the texts, the material resources and the actions that continue to underpin notions of cultural superiority.

Colonial systems, such as the British Empire, used these ideologies to justify the enslavement and colonisation of peoples and lands around the world. Museums developed within this context and they remain spaces that celebrate and memorialise colonial systems. Collections, displays and labels are a political act that have legacies rooted in colonialism. We are only now recognising that we are not neutral and that we have, without consideration, been complicit in perpetuating the ideologies of previous centuries.”

What happens next?

In November 2022, Curating Discomfort was awarded a ‘Museums change lives award’ by the UK Museums Association and we’ve been able to secure funding from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation to continue this work in the next 3 years. This next phase is called Power in this Place. Unfinished Conversations and focusses further on sharing power and authority through co-production, aiming to embed this work permanently in all aspects of our work, working in a number of partnerships with what we call Community Hubs in different parts of Glasgow.


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