Sheffield Council to work on tackling ‘racist, outdated and uncomfortable’ messages across the city after wide-ranging review

Sheffield Council is developing a plan to address racism and inequality in the city’s culture sector following a review.

Thursday, 29th July 2021, 4:21 pm

The review was co-produced by Sheffield Council Sheffield Museums, the University of Sheffield and Sheffield Hallam University and presented to Sheffield’s Race Equality Commission this week during hearings on sport and culture.

It presents an overview of issues related to race and equality that are embedded in the physical fabric of the city, both in plain sight and deeply structural.

The initial purpose was to find if Sheffield had any offensive statues or monuments following Black Lives Matter protests last year that saw the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, a slave trader, in Bristol.

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Coun Abtisam Mohamed.

It stated there are no statues such as that in Sheffield but there are features across the city in street names, collections and public art which “perpetuate racist, outdated and uncomfortable messages” and an inadequate expression of its large and diverse population.

Councillor Abtisam Mohamed, executive member for poverty, fairness and equality at the council, said: “Our streets, buildings and monuments tell the story of this city and shape our experience, understanding and relationship with it. This report and the work of the Race Equality Commission is an opportunity to go forward and establish an honest and reflective relationship with Sheffield’s history and heritage, not to rewrite or shame, but to tell a balanced story and to learn for the future.

“Our diverse communities are the living soul of this city, we want all of them to feel valued and at home here, that their roots are honoured and respected, and for Sheffield’s story to be inclusive, up-to-date and authentic. For that to happen those stories have to be told by the people who live within them and are part of Sheffield’s next chapter.”

Street names identified included those referring to people who were heavily involved in slavery (such as Canning Street, Cannon Hall Road and Dundas Road), violent suppression (including Cromwell Street, Gordon Road and Havelock Street) and empire (for example Empire Road, Jamaica Street and Kingston Street).

The review also found a stark lack of diversity in the city’s monuments. Of the 100 on the council’s asset register, none are dedicated to a non-white figure and of the 20 ‘Sheffield Legends’ plaques celebrating contemporary Sheffield personalities set into the pavement outside the Town Hall, there is only one – for Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill – celebrating someone of ethnically diverse heritage.

It was noted in the report that many of the historical figures celebrated in Sheffield were social reformers and abolitionist campaigners such as James Montogomery and Mary Anne Rawson but these should be built in a more representative way in the future.

The same problem was found with the city’s public art works including historic and recent commissions. Although works over the last five years were not yet added, of the 277 works listed, only one is by an artist who has an ethnically diverse heritage – Benjamin Zephaniah.

Within the city’s libraries, staff identified older titles which could be seen as racist or selective in historical accuracy but these were not removed as they “reflect society and thinking at a particular time”.

In Sheffield City Archives, it was identified that the collection reflects more of what was given rather than a deliberately curated representative view of the city and this needed to be addressed.

Sheffield Museums recongised work needed to be done to decolonise its collections through researching and reviewing, reinterpreting, returning items to communities of origin and collaborating with communities and partners across the city.

In the review, it said: “Britain’s colonial history, racism and the legacy of slavery are woven throughout Sheffield’s collections and we recgonise and will seek to address these offensive ideologies and uncomfortable truths.”

The issues were discussed in a Race Equality Commission hearing today.

When giving evidence, Desiree Reynolds, writer in residence at Sheffield Archives where she is addressing “obvious silences”, said the city was losing Black artists because of the lack of representation.

For example, she said there was £5,000 of funding available for a Windrush project but this was given to an entirely white company. She said it was only after intervention by Black creatives that this money was given back and the council is re-allocating it.

She said: “My hope was to highlight the injustice, the fraud and ineptitude of the decision to award a white organisation with wholly white staff, a white board and a roster of 19 artists all of which were also white to work on a Windrush project. I’m sad that this isn’t unusual.”

She said there needs to be: an annual equity audit that examines how things have moved on, if at all, every year, better use of the wealth of knowledge and expertise in the city, apprenticeships at every arts organisation in Sheffield and a shared vision and responsibility.

Rebecca Maddox, head of culture at the council who was involved in producing the report, told the commission hearing: “What [the report] does show is this is very complex. We need to make an awful lot of different changes…

“I don’t think the council can just say ‘here is a statue or street name, we are going to do this or that about it’, there needs to be education and debate and community consultation and potentially more public art and readdressing some of the balance of the current physical environment so that it does better represent the citizens of Sheffield.”

The council is now aiming to develop a five-year programme to better represent the city with input from the Commission and a consultation.

The report said: “In endeavouring to share what we have found the report raises questions and invites opinions and judgements that cannot be answered by the group – what’s unacceptable, what should be removed, what should be explained, and most importantly, what does our future city look like?

“The answers to these questions must lie in an ongoing public debate, shared community views and, importantly, shared action.”