‘You might understand this coming from a student, but the idea that this has been approved by the Faculty is as terrifying as it is comical’
Cambridge University’s archaeology museum is to add signs to explain the “whiteness” of sculpture plaster casts, as part of the Classics Faculty’s new anti-racist strategy.
Plaster casts of Roman and Greek sculptures that are on display at Cambridge University’s Museum of Classical Archeology, as well as around lecture rooms, give a “misleading impression” of the whiteness and “absence of diversity” of the ancient world.
The Classics Faculty has said it will “turn the problem into an opportunity” by drawing attention to the diversity of those figured in the casts, to the ways in which colour has been lost and can be restored, and to the “role of classical sculpture in the history of racism”.
The new information panels about the “whiteness” of plaster cast sculptures are due to go on display later this year, according to the faculty.
However, the plans have prompted a furious backlash among Cambridge dons who said the move is “unhinged” and “extraordinary”.
One academic told The Telegraph: “You might just about understand this coming from a student but the idea that this has been approved by the Faculty is as terrifying as it is comical.
“It is so easy to laugh at this but in laughing it is easy to overlook how extraordinary it is that one of the finest humanities departments in the western world is putting this stuff out with an official institutional stamp.”
Another academic pointed out that since the museum’s 600 plaster casts of Roman and Greek statues are largely depictions of Romans and Greeks, the opportunities to highlight their diversity would be limited.
Academics in the Classics faculty are understood to be aghast at the proposals which were published last month as part of an “action plan” to combat accusations of racism.
Systemic racism within Classics’
The action plan was drawn up in response to an open letter written last summer to the Chair of the Classics Faculty Board which called for “public acknowledgement of the problems of racism within Classics and the need for active anti-racist work within our discipline”.
The letter, which was signed by dozens of students, alumni and some of its own staff members, made a series of demands including “an acknowledgement of the existence of systemic racism within Classics”.
Last month, the Classics Faculty published a lengthy statement in response to the letter as well as an action plan, detailing all the steps it planned to take to address the accusations of racism.
As well as erecting new signs to explain the “whiteness” of plaster casts in the museum, these also include adding trigger warning to lectures and reading materials.
“Students report that difficult material is not always taught with sufficient sensitivity,” the document states.
It adds that from the start of this academic year, dons will be encouraged to include “content warnings” in material on courses and lecturers will be encouraged to include these before lectures.
From October, new training will be rolled out to Classics tutors in how to discuss sensitive topics and a review will be launched into all language used in course titles and materials.
Language and diversity
When new courses are designed “the language employed will be subject to scrutiny,” the document adds.
From the start of the new academic year, all new and existing courses will be reviewed to ensure there is sufficient “diversity” on reading lists and bibliographies. This is in response to concern among students about “syllabus diversity”.
The action plan also contains a pledge to work on promoting awareness of “harassment and micro-aggressions and how to combat them” by running a series of “race awareness” sessions.
‘Implicit bias training’
All Classics faculty members should be given “implicit bias training” every three years and this should be monitored through the appraisal process, the document adds.
The action plan notes that engagement with the “problematic past and present of Classics” has been insufficient, in particular its relationship to “imperialism, colonialism and entrenched racism”.
Dons should ensure that “due prominence” is given to these issues, even if they are “uncomfortable”.
Dr Arif Ahmed, a fellow at Gonville and Caius and lecturer in philosophy, said the “only criteria” for putting something on a reading list should be its academic merit.
“I have a general concern that actually there is a threat of diluting the academic interest and value of an issue because of current political trends,” he said. “Universities don’t exist for any political purpose at all, even a laudable one like racism.”
He also warned that including warnings against micro-aggression in formal university guidance will “end up controlling free speech”.