In August, London mayor Sadiq Khan endorsed proposals for a British slavery museum as a way of combating modern-day racism. The idea was originally put forward by the Fabian Society, to help address discrimination against London’s black and minority ethnic population by challenging centuries-old tropes about racial inferiority. With Black History Month having just ended, it’s time to think about how a new museum could do this successfully, which requires looking at how slavery has been represented in the past.
In the 19th century, the history of Britain’s slave trade was ignored in favour of the story of its abolition and the heroics of people such as William Wilberforce. This presented Britain as a humanitarian force on the international stage, rather than an empire that enslaved millions of Africans for economic profit. Monuments focused on abolitionists as heroes to whom enslaved Africans were indebted, portraying Africans as inferior and incapable of saving themselves.
This was slowly challenged in the second half of the 20th century, as waves of immigration made Britain increasingly diverse. African-Caribbean populations in places such as Liverpool and Bristol, which had been at the centre of the slave trade, began to demand fair representation of the role their ancestors played and more acknowledgement of the role of the slave trade in creating modern racism and inequalities.
Museums in the two cities pioneered approaches to solving these problems, bringing communities into the exhibition-making process. More emphasis was put on highlighting the role Africans played in resisting slavery. By the time of the bicentenary commemorations of the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, these museums were held up as examples of best practice and community consultation.
During the bicentenary in 2007, there was unprecedented engagement with the histories and legacies of the slave trade in the public arena. The BBC commissioned 40 hours of programming to mark the event and the government gave museums £20m through the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
This resulted in more than 60 exhibitions, and the founding of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and the opening of a permanent gallery at the Museum of London Docklands. Museums focused on diversifying the story of abolition by stressing the role of African activists such as Olaudah Equiano in the ending of the slave trade, memorialising the victims of enslavement and commissioning artists of African heritage to make interventions into the museum space.
But the activities were criticised. Many perceived a still-strong focus on the abolitionists, while the lack of an apology by the then Labour government was widely seen as emblematic of a state wishing to use abolition as a way to celebrate Britain on an international stage at the time of the unpopular Iraq war.
Above all, many African community organisations and activists felt the commemorations did not do enough to link the history of slavery to modern racism and Africa’s underdevelopment. The British colonisation of much of Africa was hardly mentioned in 2007.
It’s not just a case of a new museum displaying the history of the slave trade accurately. It also has to contend with the demands of the current political moment. How should the slave trade be contextualised today, as Britain tumbles out of the European Union? How can a slavery museum link rising levels of hate crime and ethno-nationalist politics to historical prejudices? Above all, with growing demands for museums to decolonise, how could a new museum provide an alternative model of dealing with the legacies of empire?
These debates are being held across the sector and must be encouraged at every opportunity. Without this self-reflection, there is no guarantee that a new museum of British slavery will avoid the pitfalls of previous attempts, and be able to challenge the long-standing discrimination towards black and minority ethnic populations.
Matthew Jones is a research student at the University of Sussex