Commentaries

Digital Project Launch: Legacies on Display

Today (3rd December 2018) marks the launch of our newest digital project. ‘Legacies on Display: Slavery in Museums’ is a showcase of museums around the world that engage with and interpret slavery in their permanent displays. The first of its kind, the collection brings these institutions together using an interactive map.

Museums are exciting places to see the ‘usable past’ in action. They bring together objects, people and places, and prompt discussions unable to be had elsewhere in our communities. The aims of the ‘Legacies on Display’ collection were to create a resource for researchers, and the general public, that physically locates museums that permanently interpret slavery in their displays and exhibitions, as well as to raise the profile of the museums themselves. It also provides a wider insight into how museums in different places engage with the subject of slavery- what objects do they have? What are the key themes that they identify? Who’s voices feature in the display? The collection also provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of the twenty-first-century museum; specifically in how museums address challenging histories and their legacies in the contemporary world.

Each museum is listed with a description about the organisation and its displays, including its collections and narratives. These were researched using a combination of site visits and desk-based analysis. Key findings from the collection show a geographic spread of ‘slavery museums’ across six continents, and include a range of institutions; from renovated slave forts in West Africa, former plantations in America and purpose-built national institutions in the Caribbean, to port city museums in the UK. There are different forms of slavery covered, across five hundred years of history to the present day. There is a significant number of museums around the Atlantic world (Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas) that focus on transatlantic slavery and its legacies. Another notable finding is the disparity of resources amongst museums, particularly between those in lesser economically developed countries and those not, specifically in terms of their online presence.

Highlights from the collection include:

  • Wilberforce House Museum, Hull, UK– The world’s oldest slavery museum and home of Britain’s most famous abolitionist, William Wilberforce.
  • The National Museum of African American History, Washington D.C, USA- Described by its director Dr Lonnie Bunch as ‘a museum for all Americans,’ the museum firmly embeds the history of slavery with the development of the USA as a nation.
  • Bin Jelmood House, Doha, Qatar- The only museum in the Arab world that addresses slavery, with a particular focus on the enslavement of people across the Middle East.
  • House of Slaves, Gorée Island, Senegal- A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, the renovated former slave fort features the poignant ‘door of no return’ through which enslaved Africans were forced onto ships bound for the Americas or the Caribbean.
  • Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Ontario, Canada- The museum is located on the site where the Rev. Josiah Henson set up a settlement for the many fugitives from slavery in the USA who fled to Canada. Harriet Beecher Stowe based her protagonist, Uncle Tom, on Henson.

The collection is fully searchable via the interactive map, or key words such as the name of the museum or the country in which it is located. Each museum is also tagged with key themes that can be searched, in addition to any organisations it may be involved in, such as the Federation of International Human Rights Museums, or the International Coalition for Sites of Conscience.

To browse the collection in full visit: www.antislavery.ac.uk/legaciesondisplayslaveryinmuseums.

If you have any queries, comments or suggestions for additional museums contact r.nelson@2015.hull.ac.uk.

 

‘Gentlemen slavers’ and other themes of wealth and enrichment in the Remembering 1807 archive

The recent announcement from the University of Glasgow that it benefited from donations from the profits of slavery amounting to the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds serves as another reminder of the long and complex money trail behind Britain’s role in transatlantic slavery. The way that universities, museums, religious bodies and other institutions around the world deal with the legacy of benefactors with links to slavery has become a major area of debate. These difficult histories must be acknowledged and confronted when assessing the place of transatlantic slavery in Britain’s public history. The Remembering 1807 archive highlights the ways in which heritage organisations and community groups around the UK tackled such uncomfortable questions in 2007.

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Museums of Forgetting and Remembering

Guest blog by historian David Alston, contributor to the Remembering 1807 archive

It is now about twenty years since I became interested in the involvement of Scots in the slave plantations of the Caribbean. From my own still limited research I could see that it was extensive. Yet on my first visit to The Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, shortly after it opened in 1998, I noted that there was not a single reference to slavery, the slave trade, or slave-worked plantations. While migration from Ireland to Scotland in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was deemed to be important, with a whole gallery devoted to the ‘movement of peoples’, the involvement of Scots in the forced migration of twelve million Africans to the Caribbean and North America did not merit one word. How could a national institution, with all the benefits of modern scholarship, not notice this?

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Lessons from the Usable Past: Part 1

Now that we are entering the final 18 months of the Antislavery Usable Past project, we thought it an opportune moment to start summing up some overall lessons from the project, while re-affirming others. What follows is an interim report setting out our first set of thoughts: ‘Lessons from the Usable Past: Part I’.  (Please have a look at About the project for further details about the project and the work strands.)

The Antislavery Usable Past project is a critical reflection on how past antislavery activism might inform the present. Not ignoring the fact that slave rebellions and riots were also forms of antislavery activism, the project acknowledges that the enslaved were agents in the process of Emancipation. The project raises some difficult and sensitive issues which need to be addressed.

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Using street art to help fight modern slavery

The University of Nottingham launched the first ever major collection of murals focussing on slavery and the anti-slavery movement, on the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery (2 December).

Murals are a common tool in the fight against slavery, but their ephemeral nature means that that have a limited lifespan. The ‘Antislavery Usable Past’ project has created the first large-scale collection of antislavery murals. It brings together both interior and exterior murals from the 1920s through to present day.

By evaluating how different groups have used murals about the antislavery past for protest and community activism, the archive aims to encourage contemporary antislavery activists to use this form of community artwork to raise awareness and build city-wide “slavery-free community” campaigns.

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Historians Against Slavery Conference 2017

“Outstanding scholarship linked directly to contemporary issues of injustice and oppression” (HAS delegate)

Overview: This year Historians Against Slavery (HAS) held its biennial conference outside of the United States for the first time at the International Slavery Museum (ISM) in Liverpool, UK. The two-day conference was part of a series of events during the 10th Anniversary of the ISM and also marked UK Black History Month 2017. It was co-hosted by HAS, the ISM, the Centre for the Study of International Slavery (University of Liverpool) and the Antislavery Usable Past project (ASUP, Universities of Nottingham and Hull).

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Human Trafficking’s Usable Past

By by Jean Allain. International Co-Investigator.  Professor, Faculty of Law, Monash University, Australia; Professor of International law, Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, UK.

I’ve always said that grants do two things: they are a catalyst, moving one’s research forward; and second they allow the researcher to do things they might not otherwise be able to do.

A component of our Arts & Humanities Research Council Large Grant on Antislavery Usable Past allows me the opportunity to write a monograph about the legal regimes surrounding antislavery.  That book will capture various areas of the law under the umbrella of human trafficking.

As part of that research I had an opportunity in 2015 to travel to the League of Nations Archives in Geneva, Switzerland, to go gather material around the League’s activities related to trafficking, including the negotiations of the 1921 and 1933 Traffic in Women conventions.  I also visited the United Nations Library in Geneva where I collected the relevant United Nations material including that of 1949 trafficking in Persons instrument.  That material, which I photographed, will keep me busy over the next year or so, as I sift through it to drawn out its relevance.

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‘A Museum for all Americans’

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or… some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

These are powerful words, spoken by Barak Obama in his final speech as US President in January 2017. They echoed loudly when delivered in that speech, which marked one of the most significant regime changes in the political history of America, but they echo louder still etched into the wall of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington DC. This is where I saw them, in the final display of the museum’s history galleries, opposite a case filled with objects celebrating the achievements of America’s first president of African descent. In a museum that has been in the making for over one hundred years, these words are an affirmation of the achievement that the NMAAHC is.

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One of the quieter displays in the museum explores the making of the NMAAHC. It was here where I really realised what a huge achievement the very existence of the museum is to African American communities across America.

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Nottingham Stands Against Slavery: Help make Nottingham a slavery free city

This event took place on 20th June 2017 at the University of Nottingham and was well attended with around 40 people including local activists, frontline social workers and faith leaders at the event to hear from the expert panel and discuss three of Unchosen’s short films. The level and quality of debate was very high, with detailed questions and analysis from both the audience and panel members. Continue reading