Enforcing abolition - Museums Association

Enforcing abolition

Julia Edge on a compact exhibition that follows the role Britain's navy played in trying to stop slave traders in the wake of the abolition act
Museums Association
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Chasing Freedom, Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth

The Abolition of Slavery Act of 1807 did not lead to
the end of the transatlantic slave trade in a matter of weeks or months. In fact, it took another 60 years before the trade was effectively over.

In Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, the Royal Naval Museum's (RNM) Chasing Freedom exhibition concentrates on the Royal Navy's role in combating the trade over this period. The West Coast of Africa squadron was established to patrol a 3,000 mile stretch of African coastline using 'all legal measures' to prevent slavery. In total, the navy liberated nearly 150,000 people.

It is perhaps not surprising that the RNM has chosen to tell us the story of the navy's role in the demise of the trade, rather than its involvement in making the trade successful. In fairness, the navy's part in the trade is outlined in the introductory panels and the story the museum has chosen to tell does not turn out to be an overwhelmingly heroic or triumphal one; the process of
suppressing the slave trade along the West African coast was complicated, messy and led to the deaths of many people.

Chasing Freedom is a temporary exhibition running until 6 January 2008, with an accompanying programme of learning and community events. The exhibition is staged on one end of a balcony above one of the permanent galleries and some of the problems with Chasing Freedom are caused by the nature and size of this exhibition space.

The orientation is slightly odd, and many of the visitors I observed missed the introductory panels and headed for the first audiovisual. As the exhibition is relatively compact, this does not seriously detract from its success.

Two of the display cases containing documentary evidence, however, are almost hidden around corners and could be missed by the more casual visitor. One of these tucked-away cases contains a key documentary source for the exhibition, the diary of Cheesman Henry Binstead, an officer on the squadron's ship HMS Owen Glendower.

Possibly, it is the need to minimise light levels on these artefacts that is partly to blame for the location of the cases, but if this was the reason, it is a shame that another solution could not be found.
The text in the exhibition was generally well written, clear and concise. The use of rotating text panels mimicking the paddles of a paddle steamer, one of the vessels first used by the navy to patrol the West African coast, was an imaginative way to maximise the display space in a small exhibition area.

In the most successful parts of Chasing Freedom we hear the accounts and opinions of people who were there at the time, including enslaved Africans, naval personnel, abolitionists and other prominent political and historical figures. These add an essential human element to the exhibition. These voices come from written quotations placed throughout the exhibition, two audiovisuals, and some audio extracts from Binstead's diary. Many of these first-hand accounts are engaging and profoundly moving and give the exhibition its integrity.

To match the first-hand accounts I would like to have seen more real artefacts on display. Where they were used, they worked well; the cut-away barrel displaying the trade objects used to buy humans as slaves, for example, was compelling. But I was disappointed with the replica leg irons, neck collar and handcuffs available for handling; they were so obviously new and unused. I have seen real torture and constraining equipment in museums before and have experienced the chill realisation that these actual implements have been used to hurt and control people. Chasing Freedom would have benefited greatly from the display of some real slavery equipment.

With a premium on space, I was also disappointed with the reconstructed slave deck. The publicity promised that this would enable me to 'experience the traumatic crossing of the Middle Passage endured by millions of Africans'. I am not generally a fan of recreated 'experiences' like this. They are usually not very realistic and this one was no exception; it was far too clean and pleasant smelling.

There is a danger that presenting the recreated slave deck as a way of experiencing the real thing will offend some visitors; it is almost as though we are not prepared to acknowledge or engage with the horrific reality. Even though it is not effective as an 'experience', the reconstruction will be a useful tool to ignite the imagination and to demonstrate the extremely cramped conditions.

For me, the quotes printed on the wall here expressed much more than the reconstruction. There was one from abolition activist Olaudah Equiano from 1789 about his experiences onboard a slave ship and another one from a naval officer in the West Africa squadron in 1857 about the terrible conditions on the slaving vessels he boarded.

A section at the end of the exhibition entitled 'human consequences' examines the fates of the liberated Africans and also the impact on the naval personnel involved in the operation. There is also an audiovisual covering the short-term impact and legacy of abolition. But there were no references to the reparation debate or to the long-term legacies of the trade and these are an important part of the continuing history. There are community events, however, including an African Legacy Week and a conference, so there should be some opportunities to engage with these issues.

Chasing Freedom has too clinical a feel, especially in relation to the replicas and the slave deck. But the exhibition saves itself by the integrity of the rest of the show; if you read the text and listen to the audios there is plenty here to connect with.

Julia Edge is a freelance arts journalist and was formerly the collections manager at the Horniman Museum

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