Making Freedom: Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions - Museums Association

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Making Freedom: Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions

Carol Dixon on a touring exhibition that focuses on the African-Caribbean activists who fought to secure freedom from slavery
Carol Dixon
Education charity the Windrush Foundation developed this touring exhibition to mark 175 years since emancipation from enslavement on 1 August 1838 for over 1 million Africans in the Anglophone Caribbean.

It was developed with money from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and was guided by public consultations involving participants drawn from London’s diverse communities.
Making Freedom: Riots, Rebellions and Revolutions features two concepts.

One is a 12-panel touring exhibition, launched at the Marcus Garvey Library in Tottenham, north London, last year. This summarises the historical, socio-political and cultural contexts surrounding the annual celebration of Emancipation Day in the Caribbean region.

An expanded, 20-panel, multimedia exhibition was launched at the Pavilion Gallery at the Royal Geographical Society. This features 83 digitised images of the Caribbean region from the society’s print and documentary photograph archive.

It also includes a wide range of drawings reproduced from originals held in collections at the National Maritime Museums, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Archives, Anti-Slavery International and Imperial War Museums.

Past exhibitions about enslavement histories in the UK have emphasised the contributions of British parliamentarians and anti-slavery campaigners such as William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson in the struggles for abolition and emancipation.

The Windrush Foundation project puts a spotlight on activists of African-Caribbean descent who fought and campaigned, often sacrificing their own lives, to secure freedom for those suffering the brutalities and injustices of plantation enslavement.

Resilience and resistance

The central narrative of Making Freedom features content about the causes, consequences and legacies of major revolts and uprisings led by enslaved Africans.

It uses the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 as a key point of departure, while also documenting other significant acts of collective resistance that were catalysts for abolition in 1834 and full emancipation in 1838.

These include Bussa’s Rebellion in Barbados in 1816, Guyana’s Demerara Rebellion of 1823 led by Jack Gladstone, and Jamaica’s Christmas Rebellion of 1831-32, led by Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe.

There are biographies about the experiences of key protagonists and quotations from autobiographical accounts to ensure that the voices of former slaves are given the greatest prominence.

Extracts from the celebrated book by 18th-century African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, 1789), perspectives on female enslavement by Bermudan-born anti-slavery activist Mary Prince (The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, 1831), and the post-emancipation recollections of a 19th-century Antiguan labourer from the book To Shoot Hard Labour: The Life and Times of Samuel Smith, an Antiguan Workingman, 1877-1982 are just three examples of the accounts used to enrich the exhibition with powerful commentaries about individual resilience and collective acts of resistance.

In addition, many of the post-emancipation struggles against British imperialism are also documented, which enables the exhibition narrative to conclude with decolonisation and independence during the mid-20th century.

This includes details about the economic, political, social and cultural interdependencies between the UK and countries in the Caribbean over this period. Subjects covered include religion and education, labour relations and Caribbean soldiers.

The layout of the Pavilion Gallery allowed for the panels to be displayed in a paired, chronological sequence from the 1790s through to 1838 along one side of the room, and then post-1838 through to the late 1960s on the other side.

They were separated by four audiovisual booths positioned centrally along the length of the room for visitors to sit and listen to recorded extracts from the featured biographies (narrated by actors) and also view slide-shows of the digitised archival images.

Portable resources

A large map of the Caribbean covered an entire wall and provided a stunning cartographic backdrop for the exhibition’s storytelling and performance area.

When not in use by the presenters, poets and musicians facilitating gallery-based talks and tours, two specially-commissioned portraits by artist Desmond Haughton of the Jamaican national hero Paul Bogle and the Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Mosiah Garvey were displayed in the space.

The panels have been designed as portable resources to fit a variety of venues. Both are currently touring the UK until the end of 2015.

The project website also features an abridged version of the exhibition and over 90 pages of educational resources for use in primary classrooms and informal learning contexts with children aged 8-11 years.

The guidance notes for educators explain how the content aligns to the National Curriculum for geography, history and citizenship, as well as themes covering creativity, critical thinking, cultural diversity and the global dimension.

Carol Dixon is a teacher, education consultant and PhD candidate with interests in African and Caribbean diaspora studies, cultural geography and museology. Making Freedom is available for free hire.

Project data

  • Cost £238,700
  • Main funder Heritage Lottery Fund
  • Exhibition design Houghton Kneale Design
  • Curator Arthur Torrington

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