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Reframing Picton – from idea to exhibition

Reframing Picton project group, 22 Tachwedd 2022

The Reframing Picton exhibition has now opened at National Museum Cardiff.

The exhibition is a culmination point for over two and a half years of work for Amgueddfa Cymru and its community partners, the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel (SSAP) and both organisations’ outreach programmes – the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel Youth Network and the Amgueddfa Cymru Producers.

In this blog, one of the young people involved in the project since the very beginning gives us an insight into the project, guiding us through the key stages of the Reframing of Sir Thomas Picton.

Date: Dec 2021

We’re well over a year into this project so this entry is well overdue: let’s get to it.

What is the project about?

Amgueddfa Cymru’s collection includes a portrait of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, the highest-ranking soldier to lose his life at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. In addition to the oil portrait, plaques and statues were erected around Wales decades after Picton’s passing; these memorials have remained into the 21st century. 

Why make a change now?

On 25 May 2020, a father accused of using a counterfeit $20 dollar bill became a murder victim; the perpetrators were four Minneapolis Police Department officers. The victim, George Floyd, whose brutal end was captured via cameraphone and disseminated globally on social media. George Floyd’s murder served as a catalyst for protests and demonstrations starting in Minnesota, Minneapolis, spreading across North America, South America, Australia, Eurasia, and of course Africa. By 6 June 2020, global solidarity with George Floyd and against racism manifested in massive public pressure placed on the governments of countries across the world to address the racism within their societies; Wales of course held demonstrations from Cardiff, Swansea and Carmarthenshire to Wrexham and Bangor in the north.

This is where I enter the frame. I was part of the team that planned the demonstrations in Bangor, Caernarfon, and Llandudno. The Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel (SSAP) and the SSAP Youth Leadership Network took note of the work being done in the area and eventually, working alongside SSAP and SSAP Youth Leadership Network, brought the opportunity to get involved in the Reframing Picton project.

So I was recruited as one of the black, African-British, young(ish) activists for at least 3 reasons:

  1. My filmmaking and photography capabilities              
    I’m a filmmaker and photographer. On 6 June I was part of the team capturing the demonstration in Bangor.

  2. To make a decision regarding what to do about the portrait              
    A huge proportion of this project has been reaching a decision regarding what to actually do with the 2.14m x 1.37m, gilt-framed, portrait of Picton. We decided it should be removed.              
    Primarily, humans unintentionally associate scale with importance hence an oil painting of this size has always been a “flex”; or to be more proper, a display of status hence the intent of making such a large painting is to convey the importance of the subject. The team being aware of this underlying message of veneration towards Picton, in the absence of the violence he was responsible for, led us to the decision to remove the portrait.

  3. Reach a decision on an artist to commission
    As a result of removing the portrait, the project team decided to commission artists to create art that would better tell the story of Picton; we were particularly interested in artists from Trinidad where Picton was the Governor from 1797 to 1801. Most importantly, the team was interested in commissioning a piece to better educate the audience about Picton, a mass murderer, rather than blindly memorialise the man. We expect the new additions to be ready to view in one of the historic paintings galleries at National Museum Cardiff by 1 August 2022.

As we speak, our team is allowing the artists some time to create, while we take time to build capacity. Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton will be remembered differently for future generations. As well as National Museum Wales removing Picton’s portrait, the Hall of Heroes of Cardiff’s City Council has decided to cover up the statue of Picton placed there in light of public pressure. 

The original aim of the project, Reframing Picton, does what it says on the tin. Our objective was for the audience to see Thomas Picton in a truer light, to reframe his character, and to include the seldom told stories; I hope at the conclusion of the project that we will reach that goal. 

Date: Feb 2022

What’s the project about?

 

Mae'r ddelwedd yn dangos dyn, Picton, wedi'i wisgo mewn gwisg filwrol o'r 19eg ganrif. Mae ei wisg yn cynnwys siaced goch llachar a throwsus gwyn. Mae stribed paent gwyn yn cuddio wyneb Picton sydd wedi cael ei ffotosiopio ar y ddelwedd

Defnyddiwyd y ddelwedd fel rhan o'r alwad ar gyfer prosiect Ailfframio Picton

 

The portrait that started this whole project. 

The protests led by Black Lives Matter around the globe in 2020, prompted by the murder of George Floyd, also triggered Amgueddfa Cymru to think about some of the characters within their collection. 

Thomas Picton, who died a Lieutenant-General and a knight, has his military exploits recorded in the prevailing history of the man. What is seldom discussed about the former Governor of Trinidad is the perspective of the inhabitants of Trinidad who had to live under his rule and the bits which the British Empire, and its advocates, wish to conceal.

Even today, Picton’s brutal legacy affects the people on the island. 

From Wales to Trinidad, roads are named, plaques and paintings hang, and statues and monuments are erected; all to memorialise a man with a reputation for cruelty and sadism.

We hope that this project allows the audience to view Picton through the eyes of some of the humans that lived around him, rather than the fabricated reverence we know was bestowed posthumously. 

Most importantly, we hope the audience can decide which side of history Picton sits on. 

Date: March 2022

Reframing Picton started as an idea that the SSAP's Youth Leadership Network engaged with. 

The SSAP used its network to partner with a dynamic team of Youth with Amgueddfa Cymru’s experienced staff. The project team that was assembled spent years deciding how to approach the subject of Thomas Picton through the Museum collection of items and a re-designed (or novel) exhibition. 

The entire process of creating a commission was new to me; some of the team had varied experience working with Amgueddfa Cymru, all of which came in handy as we progressed. I really had no appreciation for the amount of work it takes to review items from the museum's collection, curate them according to some criteria and create a captivating exhibition.

The museum supplied really capable and supportive people who truly allowed the Youth team to lead decisions: an entirely worthwhile experience.

Throughout the entire project I think there were two major decisions that felt the most important: 

1) Deciding whether the portrait should go back into public circulation, if so, how?

2) Reach a decision on the commissioned artists

The outcome of these decisions can only be answered by seeing the exhibition.

 

Date: 19th May 2022

Llun o ddynes mewn ystafell dywyll, yn cynnwys lluniau o bobl Ddu, a phob un gyda thatŵ

'The Wound is a Portal' gan Gesiye

Dau berson yn edrych ar bortread Thomas Picton

Arddangosfa Ailfframio Picton

Reframing Picton is a project whose mandate is inclusivity, particularly to the descendants of Picton’s victims. 

Reaching a decision on the commissioned artists was one of the most difficult processes of this project, not least because of the volume of applicants. I truly believe the process of wading through applications has the effect of further focusing the team's understanding of the project. As we saw the Artist’s interpretation of the call-out, it allowed us to cement the theoretical ideas we had about the project, and decide whether the artist’s ideas matched our collective vision of the project.

One of the museum staff captured the sentiment behind the idea of commissioning an artist perfectly:

The Museum acknowledges they are an institution that has been founded and staffed by white people. They know that a project that contends with so much squalid history with White Europeans perpetrating unquantifiable violence against Black Africans, as such the project should be led by African diaspora. 

Between the project team and the artist commissions, I have my expectations set pretty high as the people are so capable in their artistic craft and in sync with the zeitgeist.           

Date: 25th June 2022

What’s happening with the portrait

The Reframing Picton project will be unveiled soon. I have the typical combination of emotions you’d expect; mostly apprehension.

At the heart of the issues with Thomas Picton’s portrait was always the scale, the ostentatious frame, and the elevated placement. The sentiment behind each of these factors is that of respect and reverence. Devoid of the context of how Picton rose to infamy, the issues listed need a solution.

The way in which you see the portrait presented in the museum's Historic Art gallery represents the sum of the Reframing Picton project team’s thinking. After spending so long working on this project avoiding the accusation of “erasing history” I believe we’ve struck an impressive balance. 

The Picton portrait will remain on show in an altered manner, amongst exhibits and Trinidadian artist installations that I hope will convey context on Picton.

Date: 14th October 2022

Picton Reframed – what now?

Reframing Picton the project has been finished for approximately 3 months now, with the unveiling taking place around 2 months ago.

I intimately remember my first time seeing the entire space, the ecstasy I felt over completing the project was very welcome after all the time and energy put into the project. Beyond the endorphins of finishing a task, I have a vague sense of pride in participating in the project because I believe the self-esteem of some unknown, future visitors will be lifted once they take in some of the facts covered within this exhibition. At least that’s what I hope.

Some of my most serious trepidation was around the artists and their outputs. Intrepidation quickly followed after my first viewing of the commissioned artist’s installations. I felt like the artists were exactly right, beyond that they accomplished what the AC-SSAP team never could; creating their exhibits as an interpretation of the artistic expression.

I participated in this project with the hope that future generations will have information and exhibits like Reframing Picton readily available to them and that they should not be daunted by museums and historical sites. I have personally found a new appreciation for arts, heritage, culture, and the work involved in preserving these aspects of society, and most of all, I hope more museums adopt working models that promote this degree of community collaboration.

Nid yw sylwadau ar gael ar hyn o bryd. Ymddiheuriadau am yr anghyfleustra.