UncoverED: decolonising the future through academia

In September 2018, PhD candidates Tom Cunningham and Henry Mitchell, along with a team of student researchers, set out on a project to reveal the stories of Edinburgh’s forgotten students.

UncoverED is a decolonising project addressing the collective amnesia that has erased the stories of so many of the University of Edinburgh’s global alumni. Through months of research that has culminated in the creation of an exhibition and website, UncoverED has brought these histories to the surface to remember the students of Edinburgh that should have never been forgotten.

The project is based around the creation of a database of Edinburgh alumni coming from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Americas, dating back to 1700. An individual biography has been written about each of these students, documenting their achievements and revealing their stories both at the University of Edinburgh and beyond. Among those memorialised are David Pitt, Florence Nwapa and Clara Marguerite Christian- just few of the countless students who deserve a place in the university’s history.

On January 31st, this project was brought to life in an exhibition in Chrystal Macmillan building that guides viewers through a literal timeline of the university’s colonial and imperial history. A map of Edinburgh marks the start of the exhibition, pinpointing the places in which these students’ stories began: Teviot, Potterow, Bruntsfield, The Meadows – the stories of these students coming to life in our city. Viewers are reminded that these students lived where we live and studied where we study, forcing us to question why they have been excluded from the university’s narrative for so long. The exhibition tells the individual story of each student whilst poignantly bringing them all together to form a larger story of simultaneous discrimination and achievement, in which our colonial history is at the forefront.

The panels filling the exhibition each contain a QR code, allowing viewers to delve deeper into these histories by accessing the UncoverED website. The project’s website complements the exhibition, also seamlessly designed to allow the viewer to move linearly through the history of the university and its global students. Centred around an interactive timeline that allows users to scroll through from 1800 to 2019, the website aids in drawing together these individual stories into a wider colonial narrative.

UncoverED is not just about bringing the past into the present, but about using these histories to look into the future of the university. As one of the team members described, “it’s been hundreds of years since these students have been here, but the percentage of non-white students is almost the same.” 0.7% of the university’s intake are black students, meaning the University of Edinburgh has the lowest percentage of black students than any other Russell Group university- giving this project even more resonance within the university community. “This project is part of a wider campaign to decolonise universities” and will pave the way to decolonising university curriculums, including rewriting reading lists to reflect the diversity of students that have not previously been included in the canon, as Henry Mitchell described when talking about the project’s future.

The rich, diverse history of the university has been neglected for too long, and this extends beyond the academic community. As Tom Cunningham, one of the project’s founders, put it, “Scotland hasn’t really addressed its own histories of race.” UncoverED is challenging this. This project is paving the way for other students to delve deeper into the forgotten histories of their institutions- histories that are still very much relevant now. What has been created here is the beginning of a reconstruction of the University of Edinburgh’s global legacy- a project that’s influence will live on well beyond our lives and shape the history of the university forever.

Image:Nic Cameron

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The Student Newspaper 2016