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View of the courtyard of the Castle, Durham, 1838 (Durham University Library, SD 00280)

Exploring the University’s past to inform our present

Two projects are being undertaken to explore the University’s history, as part of the broader Race Equality Charter action plan.

The Race Equality Charter

In summer 2022, following an extensive consultation process, we received confirmation of our Bronze Race Equality Charter (REC) award.

The goal of the REC is to improve the representation, progression and success of minority ethnic staff and students within higher education. It provides a framework that guides the University in identifying and evaluating institutional and cultural barriers that stand in the way of BAME staff and students.

Across the field, there are currently 97 universities who are members of the Charter, with 29 of those members holding REC awards – all Bronze. This indicates the desire in the sector to ensure HEIs are welcoming, and attract and grow talent, and forms a key part of Durham University’s drive towards building an inclusive culture.

REC Bronze awards are granted to those who have submitted an effective action plan to promote racial equality, to be implemented over the following three to five years. The Bronze award is just one step in a process which started in March 2019 for Durham and has been progressed thanks to the hard work of colleagues across the University. The successful Bronze submission is one step in the process of improvements and projects that will enable Durham University to meet the Advance HE Guiding Principles.


REC actions for University Library and Collections

Our University Library and Collections department are working on two projects as part of the REC action plan

‘Legacies of Enslavement and Colonialism at Durham University’ is a research project which will begin to explore the University’s institutional archives and other sources in order to enhance understanding of any potential involvement with colonialism and historical slavery or income derived from historical slavery.

Rachel Archbold, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, said: “As defined in the REC action plan, developing our understanding of the University’s involvement in colonialism and historical slavery is critical to our ongoing enriching and diversification work.”

University archivist Dr Jonathan Bush commented: “This important project will investigate any historic links with slavery and colonialism, helping to inform and address any structural inequalities which may be embedded within the institution.”

The second workstream is to assess historic and current collections care and curatorial practice, which incorporates collections management, interpretation and access. Internal and external stakeholders will have input into actions in response to the findings and resulting policies will be written in line with emerging best practice in the sector.  

Part of a sector-wide movement

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for EDI Dr Shaid Mahmood said: “There are similar projects going on in higher education institutions (and in other fields) across the country, forming a shift in the sector towards rectifying omissive histories. We may well uncover positive stories but there is also the possibility of finding out some uncomfortable truths. In either case, we will be deepening our understanding of our institution’s history and enabling recognition of the experience of every member of our community, present and past.”

Liz Waller, Director of Library and Collections, added: “The assessment of our past and current collections care and curatorial practice is part of ensuring our approach is aligned with best practice across our professional sectors and our commitment to collaboration in advancing development in those areas.”

What are the next steps?

The University Archivist is leading on the research into the University’s history. Two Laidlaw Programme scholars are being recruited to carry out more detailed case study research; as part of their research project training, they will undertake six weeks of work during the summer of 2023.

Final reports on the findings of both projects are due to be published late next year and the resulting actions and recommendations will be shared.

How can I find out more?

Please email us if you would like further information about either of the projects: