Roundtable Debtate: Understanding slavery - Museums Association

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Roundtable Debtate: Understanding slavery

With preparations already underway for next year's 200th anniversary of the British slave trade, Museums Journal organised a round table debate with leading experts in the history of slavery to discuss the challenges museums face
Museums Association
Museums Journal: Next year marks the abolition of the slave trade, but are museums looking at broader issues such as legacy?

Maria Amidu: The museums I'm aware of are looking at legacy. I think the reason is that in the process of looking at their collections and talking about the history, then inevitably present-day issues come up. The way we have been working on the Understanding Slavery initiative is to keep making this leap from 1834 (the 200th anniversary of abolition of slavery in the British Empire) through to the present day to look at contemporary issues. But also because the collections didn't necessarily illustrate all aspects of the history from that moment right through to the present day.

Sarah Blackstock: I worked at National Museums Liverpool (NML) and at Birmingham Museums, where I was involved in the early days of the Equiano Project. They are looking at the legacy. To a certain extent, it's so that they can connect with young audiences and make the history relevant to today. One of the problems is how do they represent that legacy through their collections. Most of the collections that represent slavery are historical abolition material and some slave culture material.

Rob Mitchell: The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum invited our media company - Firstborn Creatives - to look at content and an approach to dealing with a legacies gallery. Although the museum had quite a good idea with the historical facts - the objects, the artefacts and what they've got access to, what they can get, what they can borrow - there was a big hole around the idea of legacies and what it means.

We have worked with artists - African, Caribbean and others - using media and evidence interpretation. So we might use an object or a photograph, for example, and ask for responses.

Abdullah Badwi: For some people - and I know also for NML - legacy has been an issue in the past and they didn't want to tackle the legacy of slavery because it maybe raised too many questions. It sat too deep.

Maria Amidu: I think this commemoration brings up so many questions about museums, their origins, acquisitions and the fact that there is this big gap. That needs to be talked about as well. It is about museums as heritage sites and their economic connectedness to the history of slavery in very unsavoury ways.

Ruth Dass: I think with historic houses in particular there are histories that people have never really recognised before. They have been covertly hidden. From Harewood House's [Leeds] perspective, they wanted to talk about the history of the house - not the Chippendale furniture or their beautiful porcelain or the gardens, but they wanted to go back in time to find out where they came from as a family and where they are now.

It's a difficult task to do when you re-cut and cover what actually happened in that past, because it takes you back to the Caribbean and Africa. It's a long-term project that engenders a lot of discussion. A lot of communities are still very angry about how those houses have emerged through history and where those families sit today.

Peter Fraser: For years I have argued that one of the British views of slavery was the one that concentrated on the ending of slavery. So it was the great philanthropic view of: 'What we've done for these people.' In a sense, it took a long while for that to be unpicked. I think the other danger is that one can simply see slavery as a glorious resistance. Slaves were people, so some of them resisted, others didn't. There is the icon of philanthropy on one side and the icon of resistance on the other.

What both those views tend to do is to reduce people to merely being slaves or having a slave history and nothing else. That promotes the idea that the slaves weren't actually human beings; all there is are the children of slaves and slaves are a different lot of humanity.

If you look at most people's history, there's slavery in it somewhere. Slavery wasn't unique to people of African descent. If it's only ever discussed as something to do with African people then people of African descent are only ever identified in that way - there's an immense problem.

Rob Mitchell: There is a danger that 2007 could become a celebration of abolition. The Eurocentric context has always been about this. We don't talk about slavery, but yet we can talk about abolition. We can talk about emancipation and we can talk about Wilberforce and Clarkson. There's one local movement in Bristol that says: 'Forget it. African people of the city shouldn't bother to engage. It's nothing to do with us. It's Eurocentric, it's not going to be telling our story; it's not going to make any difference.'

Sarah Blackstock: Pre-2007 preparation, when I was researching black history and hidden histories within Birmingham Museums and looking for objects that were related to slavery and empire, some staff would say: 'We need quite a positive spin on this; we don't really want to upset people or offend people.'

I think the danger is that the commemorations could become quite carnivalesque. I've heard things like, 'Well, black people wouldn't be in Britain if it wasn't for slavery; surely that's a plus? Surely the music has been enriched?' It's always safe for black people to be the entertainers and to bring the music and the comedy and the popular culture, but black entertainers still don't own the processes of that entertainment industry. If there is going to be an emphasis on popular culture, look at the legacies that say: 'Look, black people are entertainers but are not producers or don't own the processes.'

Ruth Dass: A lot of cities have taken a very personal approach to each of their stories and each of their histories, which is valid and good. But I think there's got to be a unified umbrella that brings everything together because it's the same history. Globally, everybody's looking at the same issues. But Wilberforce is a specific - he is the man for Hull and that's what they're focusing on.

Rob Mitchell: Truth and reconciliation has got to be a national theme. Everyone's got a direct story to tell. Bristol has a different story to Liverpool; Barbados has a different story to Jamaica.
Of course, there is an irony here that this sector can address quite playfully or creatively, which is the fact that history isn't truth. It's evidence and interpretation. In a sense, the process of history can be brought out into the open at this time. It's an opportunity to do that and actually teach what history is, rather than teaching historical facts to be fed to people.

Maria Amidu: What's really key is in that process there is a real underlying shift about how museums work and how they have worked in the past. The subject of slavery and next year's commemorations are really throwing all of that up into the air and it's having a huge impact on museums, their staff and how they are going to do things in the future. Understanding Slavery has had a massive impact on the way the National Maritime Museum is thinking broadly about its programming and its collections.

My big question was: why make the assumption that the black community want to come into this space to understand this subject? Aren't they the community that know the most about it already? All the other communities think it's not part of their history. Why is it suddenly a black subject for a black audience? We realised that we had to take a 180-degree turn and actually look at slavery from a different perspective.

Peter Fraser: I think the important thing about next year and the commemorations is that it is not reinventing the wheel. But if it does reinvent the wheel, it doesn't have to be done again, for instance in 2034. The legacy of next year should be something that actually shifts people's view of how museums operate and how curators look at stuff.

Sarah Blackstock: When I started at Birmingham Museums, my first task was to map the collections. I knew prior to going into the museum sector that Birmingham had made hundreds of thousands of guns to be traded in Africa in exchange for slaves. The Birmingham history curator, who curated the whole industrial collection, said no guns were made in Birmingham for the slave trade. It took me six months of getting into all the stores and asking the right questions to find them. They were there rusting away on an open shelf and they had not been looked after, curated or documented. And the curator didn't have the interest or the wherewithal to think maybe it's something she should look at.

There needs to be internal or external African or Caribbean expertise. But museums expect focus or consultation groups expertise to be given for free. There's this idea that black people should be grateful that they're being consulted and that they're going to be included for a change. It's never the route of: 'Let's look for a consultant who we can pay what we would pay a consultant for another area of a museum exhibition.'

Abdullah Badwi: The problem with museums is that the departments, the educationalists, the curators, sometimes don't come together. We need to unify our approach in terms of telling the story and giving people the right information because then people can pick and choose how they want to receive it.

Rob Mitchell: For smaller museums and those with limited resources, motivation and interest is going to be the guiding principle. Global connections are important. That should be instituted into the understanding of every schoolchild in this country. So, in the same way they know 1555 is the dawn of the Elizabethan Age and everything else that happens then is referenced in relation to that time, then there may be similar references throughout African history or Caribbean or transatlantic history as well.

Abdullah Badwi: As national museums, we sometimes isolate ourselves; we don't think of the smaller players. It's important that we reach out and work with them.
Maria Amidu: I think smaller museums, even if they feel they have limitations, can certainly signpost their local audiences to other places as well. So I think there's the need for them to think about things more broadly rather than their own short-term programming.

Sarah Blackstock: I've just been doing a scoping exercise for MLA West Midlands to find out what's happening in the region. In Herefordshire, there's somebody who recently did a museum studies course and was aware of the issues and is proactive. Then there's another museum, in a very industrial area in Shropshire, that doesn't want to be known as the place where shackles and iron restraints were made. They're absolutely scared and they don't want people turning up on their doorstep asking to see slave shackles, but they were literally at the heart of the industrial revolution. They're refusing to do anything. They're part of the West Midlands hub and they're not listening to their hub partners.

Abdullah Badwi: In the legacy of the International Slavery Museum [planned for Liverpool], it's partly going to look at racism and the conflicts and the reactions up to the present day and the future. Some of those are contemporary stories, such as the racist slaying of the schoolboy Anthony Walker in Liverpool. If we don't tell that story, the younger generations particularly will pick up on that and say, 'Actually, that's not of relevance to me'. It's something that myself and other colleagues really feel strongly about.

Maria Amidu: Yes, of course, racist ideologies are one of the major legacies, but I think we can't arbitrarily make those connections. Anthony Walker's death is a terrible thing but is it directly connected? There's a complexity there that we really need to think about in efficient and relevant ways. There needs to be a lot of work around how we talk about the legacies, societal issues today, and how they are related to the history.

I think the important thing for me about that is not only telling the truth, but also so that all those communities who do not believe that this is part of their history can be brought into the discussions. Often it's talking about, for obvious reasons and right reasons, the black community. But one of the most important things, particularly with Understanding Slavery, is that everybody understands that this is everybody's history. You can't just relate it to one group or one ethnicity. It's a global history.

I think it's important to draw the parts of the history out where people can feel that they are connected to it, however uncomfortable that might be because, of course, there's this polarising thing that happens with this history - there's white people over there that were wealthy and were evil and the black people over here that were poor and ignorant and submissive and subjugated.

There's a need, particularly for me with young people, to present the complexities. Don't hide the complexity from young people because they're not stupid and they'll ask you loads of questions that you have to answer somehow.

Rob Mitchell: Economic history is absolutely central to this. We can identify with that idea of the international economy much more easily than we could before - for example, 'Made in China'. But I think contemporary forms of slave labour or people trafficking could be used to distract from the specific story of the transatlantic slave trade.

I think the transatlantic story has still not been told, so it will pee a lot of people off if it doesn't get told. What we should be doing then is relating the slave trade to the contemporary perspective. We have to look at what the economic situation is today and recognise how our trainers or our hotel jobs, or whatever, can be connected to slavery and how that connection can be drawn out through the education process.

Ruth Dass: The Anne Frank Education Trust chose to put Stephen Lawrence's story at the end of their exhibition. They chose to do that because they wanted to empathise with what was happening today and I applauded that. I think you can't dilute 2007, it's far too strong to dilute. It's how it's presented and it's the way in which it's presented. And that's up to us as a group to work out.

Maria Amidu: I worry a lot about what happens in January 2008. And I feel a sense of relief that the Understanding Slavery Initiative is being funded until March 2008 and we're actually focusing on doing something much bigger in March 2008 rather than in March 2007, precisely for that reason.

In all honesty, let's face it, most museums are not really going to be dealing with the issues of slavery in the long term, are they? The next big thing will come along and they'll be focused on that because the funding streams demand that they do that.

Peter Fraser: If you can get people to change their perspectives, it doesn't matter if a new source of funding comes along. They might see how they could continue some of these efforts through the new big thing that is coming along - how it is connected to Britain's place in the world and slavery. But if you don't have that perspective, you endlessly reinvent the wheel.

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