Author: mary wills

The ‘poor cousins’ of national collections? Considering the value of archives to the third sector

By Mary Wills, Wilberforce Institute 

As part of our ‘Archives into the Future’ seminar series (in collaboration with Performing the Jewish Archive and supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Care for the Future’ theme), the recent workshop at the British Library conference centre provided a forum for discussion and debate about the many issues facing archives in the third sector. Around sixty delegates from across the heritage sector, academia and third sector organisations exchanged ideas on the value of archives to the third sector, and how heritage resources can be utilised in modern day campaigning. This theme is prominent in our own Antislavery Usable Past project, with its focus on using histories and heritage as tools for creating a greater theoretical understanding of the issues we face in society, and also as practical aids for creating modern strategies and campaigns to tackle these issues.

The programme consisted of two panel sessions and break-out discussions. Speakers in the morning session addressed the relationships between archives and the third sector, with a particular focus on public policy and social activism. Philip Gale of the National Archives spoke about the need to move away from third sector archives being viewed merely as ‘country cousins’ of larger national collections. Stressing the ‘multiplicity of different narratives’ in archive collections around the UK, he encouraged the establishment of sector-wide strategies for conservation, interpretation, and promotion of smaller collections.

Dr Andrew Flinn explored the variety of relationships between archives, civil society and campaigns for social justice. His idea of a ‘useful past’ focused on social campaigns, knowledge production, and community based archiving. The latter offered mutually beneficial relationships: both in allowing communities to create and curate their own histories, and in enabling the archive to be part of contemporary community campaigns. The idea of creating archives of communities as opposed to archives of the powerful was continued by Dr Stephen Muir of the Performing the Jewish Archive project, who promoted the use of archives as a way of stabilising connections between past and present.

Dr Charlotte Clements discussed the challenges inherent in encouraging third sector organisations to understand the value of archiving their work, as part of the Digitising the Mixed Economy of Welfare in Great Britain project (which looks to make available materials which will enhance understanding of the role of voluntary organisations in society). This theme was continued into the afternoon session, which focused on experiences from the archives. There was much discussion about the idea of archives as strategic assets to third sector organisations, although this can pose a strain on the archivists that care for them. Matthew McMurray from the Royal Voluntary Service Archive reported on his own efforts to convince the charity of the value of their archive, in financial, historical and promotional terms. Speakers recounted the struggles within third sector archives to balance the needs and resources of organisations against the demands of academic and public researchers to gain access to their histories. Liz Sykes from the Together Trust argued that promoting the value of the charity’s archive was the key to its survival; she offered exhibitions, outreach programmes, and social media tools as ways to do this. Similarly, Ruth Macdonald from the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre discussed the idea of a ‘useful past’ in the use of the charity’s material in contemporary social campaigns – those against human trafficking, for example.

A further theme of the afternoon session was hidden histories. Nicky Hilton discussed the Bishopsgate Institute’s policy of ‘assigning value’ to its collections which would otherwise remain hidden, such as the extensive collection relating to LGBT history. Emphasising the importance of history ‘from below’, Nicky argued that more needed to be done within the professional archives sector in the way of offering free advice and support to third sector organisation in preserving their archives, to ‘ensure that everyday lives become everyday archives’ (a sentiment that echoed Andrew Flinn’s earlier presentation). Currently writing a history of the first 50 years of the Child Poverty Action Group, Professor Pat Thane spoke as a user of archives and stressed the cultural importance of a well-preserved archives sector for academic research.

The workshop also included break-out discussions to discuss the particular relationships and tensions between archives, public policy and social activism; and how repositories and third sector organisations can work together for the benefit of research and campaigning. Issues raised included the lack of resources afforded to these organisations, both in terms of funding and human resources. New opportunities were also discussed, in particular those offered by digitisation technologies (although opinion was divided on how helpful these developments were in reality).

So how best to ‘care for the future’ of archives in the third sector? Many delegates spoke of the necessity for collaboration, but also a need to instil a ‘record keeping culture’ across the sector. One overriding theme was the balancing act between repositories being ‘dynamic’ – whereby material is used as well as stored – while also protecting the reputation and ownership of the archives in question. There was much support for the idea of users of third sector archives engaging with social action and making something of the information they uncover; as one delegate said, it is ‘within our own rights to write our own history’.

Why the history of antislavery is horribly important…

by Rebecca Nelson, PhD Candidate, Antislavery Usable Past, WISE, University of Hull

Large Group UOH_8186 copyRepresentatives from WISE, the University of Hull and the US Embassy working with primary school children from Hull in an Atlantic celebration of the antislavery past.

The Antislavery Usable Past project is funded via the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Care for the Future’ initiative. It aims to illustrate how an applied knowledge of the history of antislavery offers a way to care for the future by providing a usable past for today’s campaigners. The impact of this project relies on an audience that understands the importance of this historic narrative, be it academics, heritage professionals, campaigners or the general public. Antislavery has long been the view through which a British narrative of slavery has been channelled, as witness some of the commemorative activities for the bicentenary of the Abolition Act in 2007. Antislavery is a hugely important topic in both the past and present, for remembering and discussing narratives of social campaigning and slavery. What follows is just a selection of the reasons why this is the case.

  1. The antislavery past is everywhere across society; whether it is in architecture, the grand houses of those who led the abolition movement, or the public halls in which they spoke, or the monuments erected to them. It is also visible in cultural trends, such as the diverse makeup of our local communities, and the improved equality between races. Abolitionist ideas remain in politics, as do abolitionists’ methods of popular campaigning, public speaking and petitioning. To neglect the history of antislavery is to restrict the general understanding of the way in which society has developed to what we know today.
  2. An awareness of an antislavery history can contribute to a better understanding and appreciation of contemporary social movements.  The presence of social campaigns and human rights can be traced back to the origins of the abolitionist movement, which is often described as the first, popular, political campaign. Antislavery is still, in itself, a current issue and many NGOs would greatly benefit from the work being done to understand historic antislavery – as an inspiration and template for methods and motivations which were employed to justify the historic campaign. The antislavery past can also be used as a complementary narrative for the histories of slavery – these are in no way exclusive narratives, and it would be impossible to gain a full understanding of one, without the other.
  3. Antislavery histories can be employed to illustrate the early development of transatlantic institutions. The abolition campaign was one of the first to unify political, popular thought in both the UK and the US, with many American antislavery movements taking their inspiration from British counterparts. Abolitionists from the US toured extensively within the UK and vice versa for UK abolitionists. Speakers were well received on both sides of the pond. Once emancipation had occurred in the British colonies, the British abolitionists went even further, setting their sights towards an international abolition. This began a significantly more global abolition movement, with an outward focus to the slave trade at sea, and within Africa itself, which still continues today. A knowledge of the antislavery past, therefore, can be used as a case example of the development of globalisation and international relations that direct the societies that we live in now.
  4. A study of the history of antislavery can have implications for many different academic disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, politics and wider cultural studies.  Such a multidisciplinary field increases the impact value for potential research, by extending the audience to whom it may be relevant, applicable or interesting.  The longevity of antislavery thought also lends itself well to a case study of change through time, for any of the afore mentioned fields.  The issues of slavery and antislavery affected, and still resonate with, many people, in a huge range of communities, ethnicities, countries, religions and economic circumstances.  The extent of this reach ensures that academic work which is linked to either of these topics has the potential to affect a high number of individuals, as well as allowing the research to utilise a wide field of stakeholders.
  5. Knowledge of the historic movement of antislavery can help to illustrate that attitudes changed, and are still changing towards individual human rights, and the criminality of slavery. Historians have argued that the history of antislavery is equally as long as the history of slavery, with many individuals seeking to escape from their moment of capture. Knowing this to be the case may help in a restitutive sense, for those who still feel the repercussions of historic and contemporary slavery. Traditional narratives have also frequently excluded black voices and that has been a significant failure of the antislavery movement – one that we as a project hope to correct!

The history of antislavery is clearly an important tool in understanding the history of social movements, public campaigning and human rights. It can also be employed helpfully to raise awareness of and promote the cause of today’s antislavery movements, offering a long view of the public movements and attitudes against slavery since the late eighteenth century through to the present day.

Some further reading:

  • Blight, D.W (2006) ‘If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.’ In Horton, J.O & L.E (eds.) Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. New York: The New Press, pp.19-23
  • Laderman, C (2013) ‘The Invasion of the United States by an Englishman: E.D Morel and the Anglo-American Intervention in the Congo.’ In Mulligan, W and Bric, M (eds.) A Global History of Antislavery Politics in the Nineteenth Century. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.171-197.
  • Melish, J. (2006) ‘Recovering (from) Slavery: Four Struggles to Tell the Truth.’ In Horton, J.O & Horton, L.E (eds.) Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. New York: New Press, pp.103-34.
  • Midgley, C (1992) Women Against Slavery: The British Campaigns, 1780-1870. London: Routledge.
  • Mulligan, W (2013) ‘The Antislave Trade Campaign in Europe, 1880-90.’ In Mulligan, W and Bric, M (eds.) A Global History of Antislavery Politics in the Nineteenth Century. London: Routledge, pp.149-70.
  • Sadler, N (2009) The Slave Trade. Oxford: Shire Publications Ltd.

Remembering Slavery 1807-2007

‘Remembering Slavery 1807-2007’ is a digital archive of records from UK projects which in 2007 commemorated the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade in 1807. It will be one of the major collections in our forthcoming Antislavery Then and Now digital resource, alongside exhibitions of contemporary slavery imagery, contemporary slave narratives, and photographs from Congo for use by local antislavery groups there. All will provide primary source materials to be used in future antislavery scholarship, teaching and learning.

Research for ‘Remembering Slavery 1807-2007’ is based at WISE, where we are working closely with heritage organisations around the UK to collect information and resources from the community groups, museums, galleries, archives, churches, theatres, schools, local authorities and other groups which remembered slavery and abolition in 2007. Alongside the archive of material from the exhibitions, performances, festivals, community initiatives and other events that took place in 2007, the resource will explore the different representations of slavery and abolition, and the relationships between commemorations and memory.

In their focus on thinking forward through the past, and what the persistence of slavery means for how we remember and commemorate moments of emancipation, we hope that our project resources will encourage shifts in how heritage partners tackle the topic of slavery, and offer potential changes in how the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire is approached in 2033.

‘Remembering Slavery 1807-2007’ will be launched in 2017 as part of Hull’s City of Culture celebrations. Please get in touch for further information, or if you organised an event to commemorate the bicentenary in 2007 and have surviving materials you would like to feature in the resource. Contact Dr Mary Wills,, to learn more.

Image information:

Schoolchildren from the Durham area took part in a recreation of the cramped conditions on the slave ship ‘Brooks’ on the city’s Palace Green in 2007, as part of an education project led by Durham University Library. Reproduced with permission from Durham University Library.

‘It wisnae us!’ An exhibition from 2007 which explored the links between Glasgow’s built heritage, tobacco, the slave trade and abolition. Reproduced with permission from Glasgow Building Preservation Trust.

A scene from ‘Sharp Practice’, a play about the slave trade and abolition devised and produced by Jackass Youth Theatre in collaboration with Jack Drum Arts in 2007. Reproduced with permission from Jack Drum Arts.

Postgraduate Research Network

By Mary Wills, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Antislavery Usable Past, WISE, University of Hull

The Antislavery Usable Past project runs a research network for postgraduates and Early Career Researchers of historic and contemporary slavery and antislavery studies from across the humanities and social sciences.

The network’s first annual workshop was held in October 2015 at the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation (WISE) in Hull. All of our PhD students presented papers during the two-day programme. Rebecca Nelson and Hannah Jeffery had the following thoughts about the workshop:

Rebecca: “Over two days, we heard from many early career researchers from across the UK, Europe and America, who all had a focus on antislavery as part of their research. A fantastic opportunity to share ideas between peers with similar interests, the presentations themselves covered a huge variety of time periods, geographic locations and academic disciplines. These included antislavery thought in twelfth century Britain, the Black Power movement, the contemporary reparation issue and even the power of poetry in the nineteenth-century Welsh abolition movement. An added feature of this conference was an evening film event hosted by Unchosen. The ‘Hull Stands Against Modern Slavery’ event featured a series of short films to raise awareness of modern slavery through film, followed by a Q&A session with academics and other professional experts. This event was open to the general public and it was a really good example of how academics and professionals can come together in the understanding and disseminating of research to a wider audience.

Because the conference was specifically aimed at this postgraduate research network, made up (predominantly) of early career researchers, this was a great chance to hear some really exciting new research being done in the field. Furthermore, for people starting out in academic careers, the conference was a brilliant opportunity to sound out ideas, as well as gather feedback and make connections for the future. The work being done by members of this network will have lasting applications across a range of fields, including history, heritage and law, and it will be fascinating to follow the progression of their careers and research. One thing that was clear to see, from the conference overall,  is that antislavery is far from forgotten within a new generation of researchers, and its legacies will remain under investigation for much longer still.”

Hannah: “Punctuating Black History Month 2015 was the first workshop of the network. Connecting fifteen speakers and a host of attendees from across the world, the conference catalysed in-depth discussions around themes of “Policy, Morality and Profit,” “Abolitionist Legacies,” “Definitions of Legacies and Enslavement,” “New Narratives of Slavery and Antislavery,” and “The Uses and Representations of the Antislavery Past.” Throughout the duration of the conference, individuals engaged with each other, exchanging ideas and knowledge on the topic of slavery. Engaging with the public on the topic of contemporary global slavery and human trafficking, the Unchosen screening was followed by a question and answer session with anti-slavery organisations. With the event at full capacity, a rich and detailed discussion was held about the current state of contemporary slavery and what individuals can do to help.

The two-day conference closed with a collaborative workshop session run by Professor Kevin Bales and Shamere McKenzie, Chief Executive of the Sun Gate Foundation and a survivor of slavery. For an hour and a half, attendees were in dialogue with Bales and McKenzie to discuss the future of the research network, focusing on the ways individuals could keep up to date with current findings in their fields whilst imparting knowledge to the general public on the issues of contemporary slavery and human trafficking. The conference was invaluable to establish longevity for the network, bringing together not only an international cohort of PhD and Early Career Researchers, but also a host of original and groundbreaking topics in the field of slavery and abolition.”

For more information about the network, please contact Dr Mary Wills at or join our facebook page.

Postgraduate Research Network inaugural workshop

This inaugural workshop of a new network for postgraduate research students working in the areas of slavery/antislavery will focus on the theme ‘Antislavery lessons and legacies’. The workshop, held at WISE on 16-17 October 2015, will bring to light new research that ranges geographically and temporally, encourages interdisciplinary conversations, and establishes vital links between historical and contemporary antislavery efforts. Members of the network will form their own committee, and will formulate workshop themes and events going forward.

The final Programme is now available.


Visual culture and the antislavery past

Please join the Nottingham team on the Antislavery Usable Past project for their panel at a larger workshop held by the London-based project Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. Project Investigator, Centre for Research in Race and Rights Co-Director and American Studies professor Zoe Trodd, project research fellow and C3R postdoc Kate Donington, and project PhD student and C3R associate Hannah Jeffrey will discuss the usable past of slave rebellion and violent resistance, including in Black Power visual culture and contemporary antislavery visual culture.

The broader workshop runs from 10am to 5pm and will investigate the impact of slavery and slave-ownership in the Midlands and the surrounding area. It will involve sharing new research that can be used to explore the local links between the Midlands and the business of slavery, as well as thinking about the ways that we might use the legacies of slavery and antislavery for contemporary activism, including in the movement to end modern global slavery. A small exhibition examining some of the men and women of the Midlands who had links with slavery and abolition will accompany the workshop. This is a free event and is open to anyone who might be interested, although booking in advance is essential.