Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Hello. My name is Professor John Oldfield from the Wilberforce Institute. In this video, I’m joined by my colleagues Rebecca Nelson and Dr. Mary Wills. We’re going to be talking about heritage and activism, particularly in the context of British slavery. By way of starting this discussion, I wanted to say just a little bit about how we have viewed slavery in the past. Up until the 1980s, this was largely a history of forgetting. If anything, the history of slavery tended to be viewed through the history of anti-slavery– that is, British efforts to bring slavery to an end. There’s very little space in that narrative for black experiences or the legacy of slavery in terms of British social, economic, and cultural life.
Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds 2007, when Britain commemorated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, provided an opportunity to challenge that narrative, but the results turned out to be rather mixed, if anything. There was a very strong emphasis still on Wilberforce and the abolitionist elite. There were calls for apologies, but these were often muted, and there was very little emphasis on contemporary slavery, which of course brings us back to the question of activism. One of the areas we can see this happening, Rebecca, is in museums, and I wondered whether you could tell us just a little bit about museums and 2007. Yeah.
Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds So museums are really good tools for study and commemoration, mainly because they’re a place where academic thought meets public perception. 2007, museums played a crucial role in commemoration efforts. Lots of existing exhibitions were redeveloped with the themes mainly of black agency and anti-slavery as a mass movement in Britain, which is something, as you mentioned before, that wasn’t seen in interpretation.
Skip to 2 minutes and 13 seconds Most exhibitions that opened new– for example, the International Slavery museum in Liverpool, the Museum of London Docklands, and the National Maritime Museum– those brand-new exhibitions tended to also focus on the legacies, which you mentioned before. This was all in contrast to the previous interpretation methods with the white abolitionists. So what happened to that narrative of anti-slavery in those museums in 2007? Anti-slavery in 2007 became, as I said, more about black agency and the ordinary people driving the abolitionist movement as opposed to the white heroic narratives that you talked about before.
Skip to 2 minutes and 55 seconds Wilberforce House in Hull is a good example where because that museum already focused on abolitionism they turned their attention to modern slavery and included galleries that discuss human rights and slavery issues now. Great. And Mary, you were looking at some other 2007 projects, particularly the Heritage Lottery Fund, and I wondered whether you could add something around those projects. Yeah, that’s right. There were hundreds of events and initiatives that took place in 2007 to mark the bicentenary. Some 280 of those were funded from a pot of 20 million pounds set aside specifically by the Heritage Lottery Fund for projects relating to the slave trade, slavery, and its abolition.
Skip to 3 minutes and 44 seconds At the Wilberforce Institute, we are creating a digital archive of materials from these projects, which will allow us for the first time to critically assess the range and diversity of those projects. And can we draw any tentative conclusions from that material you’ve been collecting? Can we say now what sort of emphasis has been placed? Well, we’re still at an early stage, but we can see now that many were community-led, locally-led projects, some working within museums and local authorities, but many working outside them. Some intercultural projects provided opportunities for museums and archives to work with local African-Caribbean communities and reinterpret African heritage collections.
Skip to 4 minutes and 30 seconds Importantly too, many of these projects looked at British slave ownership and the importance of slavery in all corners of British social and economic life. Finally, many projects looked at historic black slavery in the UK and also ideas of resistance to slavery. So picking up on those final points, do you see these two narratives as complementary or slightly different? I think they’re complementary. I think there are similar narratives within museums and the community-based projects, and there were certainly many bridges between them. But there are different narratives as well, particularly when looking at this idea of provincial abolitionism and the different stories of abolitionism in the UK. Yeah, that’s really interesting.
Skip to 5 minutes and 15 seconds So I think we could see here that there are some really interesting developments around 2007, much greater emphasis on black agency, resistance, slaveholding. So that old narrative is being disrupted in some ways. I wondered in the final section whether we could return to that question of heritage and activism and what we could say about that. Mary, would you like to start with that? Yeah. There were certainly efforts by some campaign groups, not least Anti-Slavery International, to promote the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade but also to provide a platform for discussions about how to end contemporary slavery today. I would also say that many of the 2007 projects certainly acknowledge the scale and the problem of modern slavery.
Skip to 6 minutes and 6 seconds Do you think that was a failed opportunity, though? Do you think more could have been done in 2007? I think more could have been done, but I think at the same time so much of it was looking at history of abolitionism, the legacies of the British slave trade, and I think these were important stories to tell in 2007 that many people hadn’t heard of before. So perhaps we need to look forward in terms of how we can address these ideas of contemporary slavery. Yeah. I think that’s the important point. It’s the past, the present, the future, and I think it’s about marrying those things together. We’ve already seen how the narrative has shifted.
Skip to 6 minutes and 44 seconds What I think we need to do now is to make sure that policymakers, NGOs, museum curators are plugged into that sense of a past and how it can shape the future. And that’s key, I think, to a kind of activism which is about raising awareness of contemporary slavery as well as the pressing need to do something about it. And I think– I don’t know if you’d agree, Rebecca– but museums are an important part of that process, would you say? I think so. I think museums are becoming more and more spaces where these kind of discussions can take place with academics, NGOs, and members of the public.
Skip to 7 minutes and 26 seconds I think looking forward to 2033 with the next bicentenary for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire museums will again play a crucial role in commemorations for that.
Skip to 7 minutes and 41 seconds The Museums Association has actually predicted that by 2030 all museums in the UK will become both socially active and socially responsible, meaning that their visitors will not only think and discuss ideas but also be encouraged to take action on points within the museum space. And I think this idea of a campaign museum is gonna be really crucial to getting people involved in the next set of anti-slavery discussions. And I think that’s a really interesting idea, the campaigning museum, and how that might develop in the future. Could we say a little bit more about that, how you see campaign museum developing in this period? The campaign museum is the subject of quite a lot of debate museologically at the moment.
Skip to 8 minutes and 32 seconds There’s not really a set phrase or even a definition from one or multiple people as to what it is. I think for me a campaign museum is where people can get involved further than just the exhibition or inspired to go and join things or sign things in favor of whatever the museum argues. And it’s also about the museum taking a side. So I think anti-slavery is a really good topic that museums can get involved in because it’s so fundamentally clear that anti-slavery is a narrative that they can investigate.
Skip to 9 minutes and 11 seconds So you could see we’ve covered a lot of territory here from the campaigns and commemoration of slavery through 2007, and I think really what we need to be thinking about is this relationship between heritage and activism, how it will work, whether the campaign museum is the way forward. And this is, I think, something for you to think about. How do you see this relationship between heritage and activism?
Professor John Oldfield, Dr. Mary Wills and PhD student Rebecca Nelson research the memory of slavery and antislavery. All three are part of the AHRC-funded Antislavery Usable Past project.
They have teamed-up on a new database (launching in 2017) that maps the hundreds of projects commemorating the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007.
In this film, shot at the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation in Hull, they debate the idea of national heritage as a potential site for activism, discuss how museums memorialised the end of the slave trade in 2007, and look ahead to how the UK might mark the 2033 bicentennial of slavery abolition.
After watching the film, you can explore some of the UK’s commemorations of the bicentenary in 2007, including in Manchester, in Liverpool and in Bristol. If you are UK-based, tell us in the comments about any commemorations you remember in your own towns and cities in 2007. It might have been a lecture, a performance, a new community mural, a new plaque, an exhibition or another kind of commemoration. If you are based elsewhere, please share any other kind of slavery or antislavery commemoration you know about, whether in your country or elsewhere. How have communities and cities remembered slavery, abolitionism and emancipation in their public heritage?