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Statue of Robert Milligan joins Museum of London collection

PRESS RELEASE

23 MARCH 2022

A bronze sculpture of the merchant and slave trader Robert Milligan, removed from West India Quay in June 2020, will join the collections of the Museum of London.

The acquisition follows a public consultation, in partnership with the Tower Hamlets Council and landowners Canal & River Trust, which concluded that the statue should be housed in a museum where it can be fully contextualised.

The controversial landmark, based outside No.1 Warehouse since 1997, was detached from its plinth after a petition signed by over 4,000 people called for it to be removed from public view. It followed the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests that led to the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol in June 2020.

The consultation, which sought views on the future of the statue, its plinth and the area’s historical relationship to slavery, found that 76% of people were in favour of the statue being presented in an exhibition. 43% believed it should be moved into storage at the museum and 15% said it should be kept permanently out of public view.

Those in favour of keeping the statue on display suggested that it be shown with context about Milligan’s involvement in the creation of the docks, his links to the slave trade, and the recent Black Lives Matter movement.

The Museum of London Docklands, one of only three museums in the UK to address the history of the transatlantic slave trade, will now take possession of the statue as part of its collection. It will be held in storage whilst the museum consults further with local communities about how best to present it.

A Museum of London spokesperson, said: “Over the last 15 years, the museum has been working with academics, community leaders and activists to tell the story of London’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, and give voice to its legacy. The West India Docks, championed by Milligan using wealth from the slave trade, are a visible reminder of how this history has shaped our city. It is right and important that we acknowledge this in the statue’s story. We will now take time to consult with the local community to decide how best to take this forward as part of our collection.”

Ros Daniels, director for London & South East at the Canal & River Trust, said: “We want to thank everyone who took part in the consultation. Although views were mixed about the treatment of the statue, many were united in feeling we should not shy away from telling all aspects of our history. In line with preferences indicated in this survey, we’re pleased to offer this statue to the Museum of London Docklands.”

A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson, said: “It’s important that following the public consultation the statue of Robert Milligan will be displayed in the Museum of London Docklands with appropriate context to build on the fantastic work they already do in confronting and educating people about this part of our history. We continue our wider discussion with residents about what should happen to other monuments, plaques, buildings and roads in our borough that remain at odds with our values of equality and tackling racism.”

Born in 1746, Robert Milligan was a prominent British slave trader and the driving force behind the foundation of West India Docks.

As a slave trader and manager of his family's Jamaican sugar plantations, Milligan’s wealth resulted directly from his trade in enslaved people. By the time of his death, he owned 2 sugar plantations and 526 slaves in Jamaica.

The West India Dock Company commissioned Richard Westmacott to create the statue of Milligan following his death in 1809. Originally unveiled in 1813, it commemorates his ‘genius, perseverance and guardian care.’ The statue was initially situated near the dock offices (1813-1875) before later being moved to the nearby Main Gate (1875-1943). It was placed in storage during the latter part of the Second World War and stayed there for over fifty years before being re-erected in February 1997 outside No.1 Warehouse.

In 2020, in the wake of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd protests that led to the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol, a petition to remove the Robert Milligan statue from public view quickly acquired over 4,000 signatures. On 9 June 2020, the Museum of London issued a statement advocating for the statue's removal on the grounds of its links to colonial violence and exploitation. The Museum worked with Tower Hamlets Council Council and the Canal & River Trust to remove the sculpture on 9 June.

The statue has been given to the Museum of London by the Canal & River Trust and becomes part of its permanent collection from March 2022. A decision has yet to be taken on the statue’s plinth, which remains at West India Quay.

Further information: www.museumoflondon.org.uk

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Notes for editors

For more press information please contact Ashton Bainbridge, PR Manager at the Museum of London on 07967313176 or [email protected]

About The Museum of London Docklands

The Museum of London Docklands is located at West India Quay in east London. Opened in 2003, this grade one listed converted Georgian sugar warehouse specifically tells the story of the port, river and city – focusing on trade, migration and commerce in London.

The museum is open Wednesday - Sunday 10am – 5pm and is FREE to all. You can explore the Museum of London with collections online – home to 90,000 objects with more being added regularly. www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

From Monday 4 April, the Museum of London Docklands will return to opening seven days a week (10am-5pm)