The Times, 31 July 2023
Soul-searching for Rhodes Trust over its founder’s legacy
The question of whether the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes was a “ruthless exploiter” has been put at the heart of a £38 million revamp of the headquarters of the trust set up in his name.
As the Rhodes Trust, which oversees scholarships at Oxford University, celebrates its 120th anniversary, it has announced exhibitions designed to explore the legacy of the colonialist.
Protesters have called for the university to remove a statue of the businessman and politician because of his views on imperialism and race, as part of a campaign that became known as Rhodes Must Fall.
Last year Nadine Dorries, who was culture secretary at the time, gave listed status to a plaque at an Oxford college celebrating Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia.
The trust has spent £38 million renovating the grade II* listed Rhodes House in the centre of Oxford. To mark the anniversary the trust has opened exhibitions exploring the question of whether its founder was a “ruthless exploiter”.
The three exhibitions include photography, textiles including a new Rhodes tapestry, and a set of globes exploring the legacy of the slave trade.
The new photography exhibition, titled Cecil John Rhodes: Hero, Villain, Ruthless Exploiter or Unjustly Accused?, by Shadreck Chirikure, an Oxford professor of archaeology, is described as a reflection on some of the academic’s “conversations with the Rhodes Trust’s legacy, equity and inclusion advisory groups, and how we think about the legacy of Mr Rhodes”.
Another exhibition, I Am Because We Are, by the British contemporary artist Nicola Green, explores the life, identity and achievements of ten Rhodes scholars and fellows. It is described as designed to face the history of the trust “through their lived experiences and consider the themes of colonialism, diasporic identity and justice”, including a new Rhodes tapestry.
A third exhibition, The World Reimagined, by artists including Zita Holbourne, Parys Gardener and Richard Rawlins, explores the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Set in the house’s gardens, it features specially created globes made by the artists.
Elizabeth Kiss, the house’s warden and chief executive of the trust, said: “To mark this anniversary and the opening of the new Rhodes House, we have commissioned several art exhibitions to help us, and the wider community, reflect upon, and grapple with, the trust’s legacy. We believe that we can only make real progress as an organisation by engaging fully, critically and honestly with our history.”
The exhibitions opened this month, with open days at Rhodes House planned throughout the summer.
The trust is also launching a £200 million campaign to fund the largest expansion of Rhodes scholarships in history.
Rhodes scholars include Bill Clinton, the former American president, and the former prime ministers of Australia Tony Abbott, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Turnbull. The international scholarship programme was set up in 1902 for Commonwealth countries, America and Germany.
The trust plans to raise enough funds to increase the number of scholarships from 100 to 125 a year, including increasing the number of scholarships for African students to 32 a year.