Interview with Catherine Eagleton

Catherine Eagleton is Curator of Modern Money at the British Museum. In this interview she talks about the exhibition 'Inhuman Traffic', the representation of the history of the transatlantic slave trade through material culture and the legacy of the exhibition for the museum. Interviewing Catherine Eagleton is Helen Weinstein; they are identified as CE and HW respectively.

HW: So, can you tell me what the main aims for the exhibition 'Inhuman Traffic' were?

CE: Right from the beginning we understood that if you do an exhibition about money and the slave trade it could be a horribly dry economic account of the trade. It would also be the wrong way to handle the subject. We did a lot of work to put the exhibition together so that it wouldn't be just a show of a bunch of money. We discovered in the end some really amazing and powerful objects in our collections that had never been on display.

HW: Could you take me on a journey through the exhibition and describe to me how it works? What did you want the journey for the visitor to be?

CE: The exhibition has two headline themes and they were represented in each of half of the exhibition space. One of the themes is about the impact of the trade on people and cultures. We wanted to focus on the people involved rather than just the economics. The millions of people involved. This included both the people in Britain who made fortunes on the shipping and trade of individuals and the people in Africa who were captured and enslaved. The other theme concerns the economic and business impact. We develop the idea that the textile industries and the metal industries in Britain became enormously wealthy off the back of the transatlantic slave trade, even after the trade had supposedly been abolished in 1807. Those are the two headline themes. The first theme, about people and cultures, we handled through six chronologically arranged cases. The first starts with trade in Africa before the advent of the slave trade. It's focusing really on trade across the Sahara Desert, looking at the trade of gold and the emergence of the European idea of Africa as a wealthy place. We wanted to surprise people with the first case and say, 'Africa was and still is rich'. That was certainly how it was seen by the medieval traders. The reason for the initial exploitation by the Portuguese was that they wanted gold and ivory. The second case is the arrival of the Europeans, and the ways that trade between the continents altered economies and cultures which you can see in the changes in African currencies. The next two cases are really about the transatlantic slave trade at its peak. The first is about the journey taken by the captives from inland West Africa across to the plantations in the Americas. That case is very simple as we've got a set of shackles and some cowry shells. I was in the odd situation of having to look at three different sets of shackles to choose for the display. It was the most horrible choice I've ever made. I didn't want to choose any of them. The second case is about resistance which we wanted to put it side by side with the previous case to show how people fought against enslavement.

HW: Who features in that section on resistance?

CE: Well we have been criticised for not including Wilberforce in that. He is in the label text but we don't have a picture of him in there. We stand by that because the point with that case is that different actions and different groups come together to create a kind of critical mass. The last two cases are really after 1807 to show that the Abolition Act didn't end it all. One case is about the continuing trade and enslavement after 1807, featuring Confederate banknotes from the American Civil War. The final case is much more contemporary. It has two main concerns, one is about the legacy of enslavement, in terms of segregation and racism, and we have a variety of badges from the Civil Rights Movement era. The other addresses contemporary enslavement, with a bar of chocolate from a Dutch company that are producing slave-free chocolate.

HW: So that's the chronological side of the exhibition?

CE: Yes, it's really about people and cultures and the impact the slave trade has had. The other side has six more cases that move away from a strict chronology and discuss wider processes. For example, in one case the brutality of the slave trade as represented by a seal depicting a sugar press is contrasted with a satirical print and sugar bowl to highlight the human cost of the production of sugar in the Caribbean. There are other cases about tobacco, metalwork, firearms and textile production.

HW: How did you make the decisions to tell this particular story?

CE: We wanted the story to be carried by the objects. That's something that we as the British Museum we can really do here, we've got the collections. All those objects in the twelve exhibition cases are ours. We wanted to get objects out on display that are not normally on display, to show people a new way of looking at the museum and its collections. Importantly this allows people to see this subject through some of the objects associated with it. The problem with this approach is that there are massive gaps in the story because the enslaved tended not to leave behind material culture. They tended not to be allowed to have the opportunity to amass any kind of possessions. So there can't really be a balance in the story. That absence combined with our objective of bringing in people and different voices meant that we decided to have four panels which just had quotations on. So instead of having narrative panels telling the story we, we tried to carry the story in the objects and the labels and then have these quotation panels as well. These quotes are from a number of individuals including from various periods in history, from a 14th century African monarch, to Olaudah Equiano and Bob Marley. We were really keen to give that sense of individuals taking a stand, individuals' points of view and getting voices back in because that is missing in some parts of the story

HW: If you had to give one message about what this exhibition is about, what would you say?

CE: It's, it's about the impact and the legacy of the trade in terms in terms of the people involved.

HW: So what are you hoping to come out of this exhibition? What is the legacy for you?

CE: There are internal and external legacies. Internally, the conversations that we had in running the events this year have been very useful and the work we've done with the collections is really valuable. We now have a lot of objects identified that I'd like to see being used as interventions in the permanent galleries, to embed this history so it's part of the story we are telling. It's also been helpful externally in giving us a very good opportunity to look and learn about our audiences and how they would like to handle this kind of subject. We are now planning some of the following-on work, such as educational work and programming work. We have a much clearer idea of what sort of things might be of interest, what sort of events and exhibitions we can handle and what sort of demand there is for these. In terms of building trust with communities this year has been invaluable, but we have a big job to do and it's only just started. Now the crucial thing will be not to lose this foundation, because if we do, we may as well not have done all the work we have done this year. So for me it's the beginning, we learnt a lot about ourselves internally, but it is up to us in the museum to keep going and to keep showing the commitment to the communities we engage with.

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