Taking the lead in the slave trade story - Museums Association

Taking the lead in the slave trade story

Most of us in museums know that October is Black History Month – but how many of us realise that …
Jane Morris
Most of us in museums know that October is Black History Month - but how many of us realise that 2004 is also the Unesco year devoted to the commemoration of the struggle against, and abolition of, the international slave trade? Or that 23 August has been designated the international day of remembrance of the slave trade since 1996? The profile of the two events has been low to say the least, which is surprising given the impact that slavery and its abolition had on Britain's history, and still has on Britain today.

Unesco chose 2004 as the bicentenary of the proclamation by the island of Santa Domingo (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that it was as a self-governing black state, an event that followed the revolt by African slaves on 23 August 1791. Unesco picked the year and date to underline the role that enslaved Africans played in their own liberation.

In the UK, the Home Office agreed to take the lead on the project, but so far appears to have only provided a £5,000 grant for a small number of events at the end of August. But it is promising a parliamentary debate on 14 October and has set up an informal panel of advisers to devise the commemorations for 2007, the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Britain and the former British Empire. Hopefully this will lead to something more substantial, but it is fair to say that not many people at the moment are holding their breath.

Events such as these commemorations create mixed feelings among people committed to equality of representation in
museums. After all, shouldn't the history of black British people be a mainstream part of museum displays? The transatlantic slave trade is a story of major importance, as is the Civil War, the reformation or the Enlightenment, so does it really need its own special event? But the fact is that the story of the slave trade is not widely taught in schools - so much so that a group of museums, including the National Maritime Museum, museums in Bristol and National Museums Liverpool, are currently devising a Key Stage Three programme for schools to start to fill the gap.

How black history projects should be created is equally up for debate. Communities obviously need to be involved, but some experts argue that this is not in itself enough: many people in the black community need to learn about their history too. Museums need to involve black historians and academics more, according to some consultants.
But whatever the debates, one thing is for sure: museums have an important role to play if they wish to get involved. National Museums Liverpool was among the organisations that put together a range of events in August, but it was one of the exceptions. It is probably too late to salvage much out of 2004: but that need not be the case in 2007, particularly if museums put pressure on the government, and lead by example.

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