Trading Places - Museums Association

Trading Places

Museums have been working hard with their counterparts overseas to give an international dimension to this year's anniversary of Britain's abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Patrick Steel reports
Patrick Steel
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'Dealing with the Bicentenary is an international affair, looking at West Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean, and Britain. You really can't just have one side of the story, you have to have all the aspects,' says Ruth Fisher, the 2007 bicentenary cultural coordinator at Museums, Libraries and Archives London.

In the run-up to the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, which will be commemorated this month, many museums will be exploring the international angles of the trade.

A large number of projects have been established between British museums and their counterparts in former colonies, heralding, it is hoped, a new understanding of Britain's involvement in the slave trade, and telling another side of the story.

A key driver of this work is education, and several schemes are aimed primarily at involving young people and schoolchildren both here and overseas. Perhaps the most ambitious of these are National Museums Liverpool's (NML) Make the Link, Break the Chain, and Bristol City Council's Adisa Project.

The Liverpool project teams four schools in the city with schools in Brazil, Haiti, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Pupils will discuss slavery in the classroom, and then be encouraged to share their thoughts with children in the other participating schools via a website forum. NML plans to make the website live as part of the opening of its International Slavery Museum on 23 August.

The Adisa Project has taken this idea a step further by sending a group of eight young people picked from youth groups in the city on a study tour to Ghana accompanied by youth workers and a member of the museum service. Last month they met their counterparts in Ghanaian youth groups to explore the history and legacy of the slave trade and learn about the country's history and culture.

The youngsters also recorded their encounters and helped to gather objects, both of which will feed into a temporary exhibition at Bristol's City Museum and Art Gallery in May and will later feature in the £18.6m Museum of Bristol when it opens in 2009.

But it's not just school and youth groups that are on a learning curve. Attitudes to the bicentenary are not as black and white as some would have you believe. While setting up international projects around the 200th anniversary commemorations, some have encountered responses and ideas that have surprised them.

Tim O'Dell, the reader development officer at Lambeth Archives in London, was taken aback by the lack of enthusiasm shown by his Ghanaian counterparts when he first proposed his idea to set up a video-link between book groups in Ghana, Jamaica and Britain.

'The Jamaicans were very keen to take part,' O'Dell says. 'But there was more reluctance in Ghana. The people I spoke to were saying "the abolition of the slave trade doesn't mean anything over here, we've been independent for 50 years and we need to move on". I was surprised.'

It is certainly not an attitude shared by Frank Lawrence, an inhabitant of Sturge Town, a Jamaican village set up in 1840 when slaves were turned out of the plantations with no money and no homes to go. Lawrence was contacted by Mary Ingoldby, the sound curator at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) in Bristol, who recorded a telephone interview with him.
The interview will be used in a gallery that will tell the story of the Caribbean, from emancipation through to immigration and independence, using contemporary voices to recall the past.

The gallery is one of six that will make up the museum's Breaking the Chains exhibition, due to open this spring. 'We were very excited to be involved, because our intention is to reconnect with as many people as possible to get the full story out,' says Lawrence. But the bicentenary is about more than just putting another side of the story across, he says. 'Ultimately we should be looking at some sort of reparation.'

This raises the question of what museums are doing for the international communities and organisations that are helping them to stage their exhibitions. It would be somewhat cynical if the bicentenary were to be commemorated by just plundering histories and objects from abroad.

Perhaps with this in mind, the BECM is one of several museums providing work placements for overseas museum workers. In partnership with the Gambian government, the museum will be
welcoming a curator and an archivist from the Gambian museums service for two months from June this year to assist in programmes around the Breaking the Chains exhibition. The Gambians will loan objects to the exhibition and produce oral history material featuring Gambians talking about their country's past.

The placements are arriving at a good time, as the director of the BECM, Gareth Griffiths, acknowledges. 'We are beginning a scheme to move education staff from delivering to schools to training teachers,' he says. As a result, he is hoping that one of the outcomes of what he describes as the 'very important relationship' with Gambia is that the placements 'will help to strengthen our education programmes'.

Jayne Tyler, the lead officer in the Wilberforce House Museum Project at Hull City Museums, agrees that such connections are important. Hull is twinned with Sierra Leone's capital Freetown, and the museum has had a good relationship with the national museum there for some time.

This led to its curator, Celia Nicol, coming to Hull from Freetown on a two-month placement in 2004. During her visit Nicol described a cotton tree in Freetown that people would sit under and tell stories, and the museum is now recreating this in metalwork for its West African gallery.

The hope is that school and learning groups can sit under the replica tree and learn about West African oral traditions. 'The idea was very much influenced by Celia and inspired by her input,' says Tyler.

And while a tree was the inspiration for one of Hull's collaborations, the Museum in Docklands (MiD) in London, was spurred into action by a table in its collection that was once owned by abolitionist Thomas Foxwell Buxton. The museum has commissioned a play by the South African-born playwright John Matshikiza, which is centred on the table.

Buxton sat around the table with other abolitionists when they drafted the parliamentary bill that ended the British slave trade. The play will be part of the museum's Turning the Tables exhibition, and will travel, along with a replica of the table, to the Iziko Slave Lodge in Cape Town and to the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, with local actors staging the play in each location.

A similar idea was behind the revival of the theatre production Carnival Messiah at Harewood House in Leeds, which originally premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 1999. David Lascelles, Harewood's owner, is planning to bring 25 performers from Trinidad to perform the show. He went to Trinidad in October last year with the production's Trinidad-born author, Geraldine Connor, to meet performers and designers.

The production is particularly apt, he says, because 'it is a way of talking about the subject [of slavery] in a way that commemorates the bicentenary and also celebrates Caribbean culture in all its forms'. The whole production will cost more than £1m and will go into rehearsal in July for an opening night of 14 September.

Other projects have centred on art. The Victoria and Albert Museum is marking the anniversary with an exhibition of work by 11 contemporary artists from Africa, America and Europe, which opened last month. Uncomfortable Truths includes commissioned works by four leading international artists: former Turner Prize nominee Yinka Shonibare; British artist Keith Piper; Beninese artist Julien Sinzogan; and Romuald Hazoumé, also from Benin.

The British Museum has bought a work by Hazoumé called La Bouche du Roi. Literally translated as The Mouth of the King, the title refers to a place in Benin from where thousands of enslaved people were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean. The work comprises more than 300 masks made from petrol cans and other objects arranged to recall the famous 18th-century print of the British slave ship, the Brookes.

English Heritage has commissioned research into connections between its properties and the slave trade. David Miles, the chief archaeologist at English Heritage, says: 'No one had ever asked about the link between money from slavery and the construction of these buildings.'

The survey will cover all the organisation's properties from 1600 to 1840. Alongside this research, at the invitation of the Ghanaian government, Miles travelled to Ghana (see case study) to meet with heritage professionals and to see the remnants of colonial architecture.

Catherine Eagleton, a curator in the department of coins and medals at the British Museum, also travelled to Ghana to research the British Museum's exhibition, Inhuman Traffic: the Business of the Slave Trade. Colleagues at the department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas put her in touch with museum professionals at the national museum in Accra.

She says she 'immersed' herself in the history of the slave trade, visiting former British forts along the coast. 'Seeing those places profoundly affected the way I think about the subject,' she says. 'I was inspired and moved by my visit, and this has informed the exhibition.'

Case study - Krobo Mountain

David Miles, the chief archaeologist at English Heritage, joined a British delegation to West Africa last year to participate in a three-day workshop on archaeology and heritage management in Ghana. The workshop culminated with a paper being drawn up with a list of priorities for the country's heritage that delegates voted on and was then passed to the Ghanaian government.

As well as looking at ways of initiating useful contacts between Ghana and the UK and developing training sessions for Ghanaian heritage professionals, Miles was also invited to look at a site for a new museum.

Krobo Mountain, to the north of Accra, was home to the Krobo people, who built their homes on top of the mountain to escape the clutches of British slave traders. After the slave trade was officially abolished, they remained on the summit and refused to pay taxes until the British army was sent to clear them off in 1892. It wasn't until 1992 that the Ghanaian parliament passed a law allowing the Krobo to return.

The archaeology department of the University of Ghana has already begun a preliminary survey of the mountain. Kodzo Gavua, the head of the department, says: 'We are eagerly expecting our colleagues from English Heritage to join us for a detailed archaeological survey of the mountain settlement and we are looking forward to strengthening our partnership with English Heritage in order to improve the museum sector and heritage management in Ghana.'

Miles is enthusiastic about the project. Part of the attraction of fostering links with Ghana, he says, was to become involved in 'the enormous amount of very important British heritage that exists outside Britain'.

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