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A step forwards or a step sideways?: Some personal reflections of how the presentation of slavery has (and hasn't) changed in the last few years

Dr. John Beech, Coventry University

It is, of course, appropriate to commemorate the abolition of the slave trade, if only because it was the major step to achieving the abolition of slavery itself. How we commemorate is worthy of study as a topic in its own right.

Perhaps the seminal event in focussing the minds of academics on this topic was an early conference held by the College of Charleston in 2000 called 'Plantations of the Mind - Marketing myths and memories in the heritage tourism industry'. For the first time colleagues from the UK, USA and Africa presented work on how slavery was then commemorated publicly, and two publications resulted (Beech, 2001; Beech, 2002). Professor John Willis of Princeton University tellingly asked at the conference with regard to slavery heritage "Whose heritage is it anyway?"

A photo of slave cabins on a plantation

Slave cabins on a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina.
Photograph: Dr. John Beech

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The post-conference study tour gave an insight into the way South Carolina had presented, and was going to present, slavery to the heritage and tourism market. There were seven sites which we visited, and each had taken a different perspective, driven by what they had to offer in terms of built environment and material culture. We visited restored plantation owners' mansions, landscaped gardens and rice paddies built by slaves, and, most chillingly, cabins which had been built pre-1865 and occupied by 'liberated' (legally if not economically) slave families until the 1920s. All were quite different and yet all sent a single message loud and clear - slavery took place here!

My own contribution to the conference was a paper written as a result of surveying what was presented in UK museums at the time. With the single and obvious exception of Hull, where the work on abolition by Wilberforce (Hull being his birthplace and home) was of an almost celebratory nature, UK museums showed an almost total preoccupation with presenting slavery solely as the phase known as the Middle Passage - the transportation of slaves from west Africa to the Americas. I was moved to comment that slavery had been 'maritimized' and came to the conclusions, with respect to its presentation, that:

Harsh conclusions, but ones that I argued were certainly justified at that time. To be fair, there was little general awareness of slavery as an issue at the time - no imminent two hundredth anniversary, no imminent film on William Wilberforce. Again, to be fair, the few museums that had major displays had chosen to do so because the slave trade had played a major role in their history - large exhibitions were limited to Bristol and Liverpool, plus Hull, and very few of the other ports had noticed this embarrassing aspect of their history, London most noticeably so. Has there been a significant change in the intervening seven years? The significance we place on centenaries certainly placed the abolition of the slave trade on the public agenda. Society also developed a penchant for apologies over past events - the treatment of Japanese Prisoners of War had become an issue, and in February 2006 Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, apologised for the Church being at the heart of the slave trade. In November the same year Tony Blair went so far as to express 'deep sorrow' over Britain's role in the slave trade, although he stopped short of using the word 'apology'. Both Church and State had joined a debate started by descendants of slaves who felt bitter that the issue had been conveniently brushed under the carpet.

Certainly there have been some changes in emphasis in the marketing of slavery heritage over this period, and a significant increase in the number of major displays by museums, the British Museum (the right place, in the capital city), the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (I'm afraid that thoughts of German railways again leap into my mind) and the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum having entered the fray. Both Liverpool and Bristol have revaluated the way they present the slave trade.

The opening of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool on the UNESCO International Day of Remembrance (23 August 2007) demonstrated a major rethink when compared with the previous permanent display in the Maritime Museum. Interpretation has been significantly externalised, with much material on the way of life of slaves both before capture and enslavement and subsequently while enduring slavery on plantations. Whether this shift in emphasis or the pre-publicity for the new Museum has caused it, the number of black faces among visitors has significantly increased even to the casual observer.

A photo of the poster for the International Slavery Museum

A poster for the International Slavery Museum, National Museums, Liverpool
Photograph: Dr. John Beech

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Bristol's British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, in its exhibition Breaking the Chains - The Fight to End Slavery - made a similar step in terms of externalisation, but the emphasis in interpreting Britain's role is still on the abolition rather than on the trade itself. The Middle Passage still remains as a key attraction for visitors, with one of the five galleries devoted entirely to it.

What seems to me to be still missing is any presentation of the massive impact on the UK economy that slavery generated, and the broader impacts that flowed from this. Even a panel previously in Liverpool's Maritime Museum explaining how the family of long-serving Prime Minister WE Gladstone, Liverpool residents, had made their fortune from slavery seems to have been jettisoned. The inconvenient truth that not only did slavery create massive pain, suffering and misfortune for black people but also enormous gains, financially, socially and politically for the white traders without any apparent moral qualms - these people, it should be remembered, resisted strongly the pressure that abolitionists brought to bear - is still not recognised fully in the presentations of today. A display of how street names reflected an involvement as a port in the slave trade hardly seems to reflect the impact on the city.

A photo an information panel at the International Slavery Museum

Panel at The International Slavery Museum, National Museums, Liverpool
Photograph: Dr. John Beech

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A cynic might also argue that the International Slavery Museum is a rebranding of the old permanent exhibition in the Merseyside Maritime Museum - the contents have certainly been changed, with the shift of emphasis noted, but the International Slavery Museum is in fact simply one floor of a building, with floors of the Maritime Museum above and below it.

Where there is cause for celebration, then let there be celebration. Certainly seven years ago none of the struggles by black people themselves were recognised, let alone celebrated. It is therefore especially welcome that Birmingham Art Gallery is holding a "flagship exhibition, in partnership with the Equiano Society, to highlight the life of former slave, writer and abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano" and that the International Slavery Museum does have a small display on the various slavery rebellions in the Caribbean.

But is celebration an appropriate word in the broader context of commemoration? Isn't the UK celebrating the abolition of slavery rather like celebrating that you've stopped beating your wife? It strikes me that in Britain we still do not want to come terms with the fact that as a nation we condoned not only those who actively participated in slaving, ruthlessly exploiting human trafficking and avoiding any consideration of the ethics of doing so, but also the much larger number of people who invested in this high-risk, high-return activity, for several hundred years - Liverpool, to its credit, does now make clear that slavery was simply another industry requiring investment.

Whether this requires a formal apology from the Prime Minister is a quite different and contentious issue, but it seems unarguable that, until we take the major step forward of recognising and acknowledging the evils carried out to sustain the slave trade for so long, there can be little prospect of reconciliation, and our society will continue to be deeply divided, something which we try to avoid noticing. We need to stop presenting slavery heritage as something which we willingly or unwittingly distance ourselves from.

What is missing still from UK presentations of slavery heritage is the unequivocal message - the slave trade took place here!

The views expressed here are purely personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the institutions where the author works.


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If you would like to respond to the ideas expressed in this article email the 1807 commemorated project,

Anne Lineen, Breaking the Chains Project Manager, British Empire and Commonwealth Museum - In his article Dr Beech does not accurately describe the Breaking the Chains exhibition at The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. He states that the whole of one of the five galleries is devoted to the Middle Passage. Breaking the Chains consists of six galleries and a film theatre, the Middle Passage (which we refer to as 'The Atlantic Crossing') takes up a small section of one of these galleries. He also says that the emphasis of the exhibition is on abolition rather than the trade itself. This is incorrect, the abolition gallery is only one of the six galleries. It follows previous galleries on West Africa, trading with Europe, the capture and enslavement of people, and slavery in the Caribbean. The role of the trade in enslaved Africans in Britain's economy is examined in four of the exhibition galleries; in the abolition gallery we examine the arguments that were put up against abolition, and feature examples of two petitions against abolition that were sent to Parliament. Nowhere in the exhibition is the word 'celebration' used to refer to the bicentenary. It is a good thing that the presentations of history around the bicentenary are examined and publicly critiqued, but it is vital that the content of exhibitions is accurately represented.
- posted 24 January 2008

Dr. Gareth Griffiths, Director, British Empire and Commonwealth Museum - There is an honourable association of railways and mysteries and the tradition clearly continues with the journey between Bristol and Coventry. Something curious must have happened during Dr Beech's return to Coventry after visiting the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. His article contains so many inaccuracies about 'Breaking the Chains' that one must conclude that an event took place on the return journey which has resulted in a loss of memory and notes. To remedy this I hope Dr Beech will make a return journey very soon so that he can restore his memory and correct the factual errors and better understand the content of the exhibition.
- posted 25 January 2008

Dr. John Beech, Coventry University - I am happy to acknowledge any errors I may have made regarding 'Breaking the Chains - The Fight to End Slavery'. To have made 'so many inaccuracies' in less than fifty words about Bristol is certainly quite an achievement. Perhaps it just seemed more in the obviously very fertile imagination of Dr Griffiths.

I am equally happy to acknowledge their source.

Although my original research on the marketing of slavery heritage in 2001 included a lengthy visit in person to Bristol, my updating in the case of Bristol involved a journey, not by rail, as, for reasons best known to himself, Dr. Griffiths suggests, but via the internet, to the link which I made live above deliberately in order to show my source. This website states that there are six galleries and then names five - clearly an error somewhere. It also clearly states that Gallery 3 invites the visitor to journey across the 'middle passage'. Not one of the gallery descriptors mentions Bristol or its role in the slave trade.

Perhaps Anne Lineen, who conveniently omits a rather significant phrase in misquoting me, and Dr. Gareth Griffiths might like to correct the errors on their own website before accusing others of making these errors. It is, indeed, 'vital that the content of exhibitions is accurately represented'.

Perhaps they may like to consider how exactly their website markets a message that the slave trade took place in Bristol. They may think they are sending that message; I can assure them that that is not the message which is being received.
- posted 5 February 2008

Dr. John Beech - The above exchange makes more sense when one appreciates that, since my posting of 5 February 2008, the 'Breaking the Chains - The Fight to End Slavery' website has been amended and now names six numbered galleries rather than the previous five. I point this out as Ann Lineen and Dr. Gareth Griffiths have not done so.
- posted 12 February 2008

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