Editorial: Ready for action on abolition anniversary - Museums Association

Editorial: Ready for action on abolition anniversary

The 25th of this month marks the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary abolition of the transatlantic slave trade – a …
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Sharon Heal
The 25th of this month marks the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary abolition of the transatlantic slave trade - a fact that museums should be only too aware of by now.

Last year there was a feeling that, with some honourable exceptions in the obvious places connected to the slave trade, museums and galleries had been a little slow off the mark in terms of getting exhibitions and events organised.

Despite the slow start, the sector seems to have got the idea, and a wide range of events and exhibitions are now planned. These range in scale from the opening of the new International Slavery Museum in Liverpool in August to Herefordshire's Museum on the Move Unfair Trade exhibition.

In this month's Museums Journal we kick off our coverage with a number of articles that examine what museums are doing in the bicentenary year. The feature on the international work that some museums have developed provides a positive insight into how museums can cross international boundaries and work with and share information with museums abroad.

There is also an interview with Maria Amidu of the Understanding Slavery Initiative, and a review of the Royal Naval Museum's Chasing Freedom exhibition, which explores the navy's role in combating the trade.

Throughout the rest of the year we will be reviewing major exhibitions related to the subject and looking at what collections museums have that are linked to the trade in one way or another. The range of exhibitions that are planned highlights how museums can find a way to tell this story that is relevant to their collections as well as their audiences.

But there are still some museums that are stubbornly refusing to go anywhere near the topic, regardless of whether their collections are relevant. They can't use the excuse that the money isn't there - the Heritage Lottery Fund has given out £10m so far in grants to museums and other organisations and there is still money available for projects to be developed.

And as museums have now been recognised as neutral spaces for debate and enquiry it will be interesting to see how far those that are addressing the topic are prepared to go.

It's not as simple as presenting either the Wilberforce, white abolitionist, or the Equiano, black anti-slavery campaigner, versions of history. Scrape the surface and there are hidden histories to be explored about why slavery was abolished in the first place (it certainly suited the shift from colonial trade to industrial capitalism) to the lasting legacies of racism and inequality, and the question of reparations. It is a complex story and one that museums are in a good position to tackle.

Sharon Heal, editor

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