I read about the London, Sugar, and Slavery exhibit at the Museum of London Docklands in this blog post a couple of weeks ago and, as a scholar of Atlantic slavery and museology, I was itching to see it. I got the opportunity to visit the exhibit after a recent business trip to London and I am pleased to report that the exhibit did not disappoint. It is a shining example of best practices for interpreting slavery.
Let me give you a tour of some of the exhibit’s highlights.
The exhibit is unabashed in it’s condemnation of slavery. It begins with the clear thesis statement, “behind the growth of London as a centre of finance and commerce from the 1700s onwards lay one of the great crimes against humanity.” The thesis weaves through the entire exhibit.
Africans in London
The exhibit quickly zooms in from the institutional to the personal. The second section of the exhibit, “Africans in London,” reminds visitors that slavery impacted and continues to impact real people. The section opens with portraits of a diverse group of black Londoners from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The pictures include wealthy, well-known individuals, such as Dido Belle and anonymous individuals, such as a black man accused of murder (see pictures below). The visitor then views a short video that emphasizes the contemporary relevance of slavery. The video switches between images of eighteenth century slavery and images of contemporary Londoners. The Londoners are reciting quotes from slave narratives about the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade. The video ends with a black screen and white letters, stating, “this is your history.” The video reminded me that, as a visitor, I had a personal, emotional investment in the content of the exhibit.
Impact on African Societies
The third section of the exhibit highlights the impact of slavery on African societies. It deftly addresses the European erasure of African history and the complicity of African elite in the trade. I was especially pleased to see this section because many exhibits on slavery neglect to discuss African society.
The exhibit then highlights the importance of terminology. It states, “We have tried to avoid using terms that strip individuals of their humanity – since this was a tactic central to the imposition of slavery. The word ‘slave,’ for example, implies a thing or commodity rather than a human being. We have used the term enslaved African wherever possible.” When I saw this section, I literally squealed with joy. It is amazing to see museums learning from the disability rights movement and employing people first language in their work.
The “West India Docks” and “Triangle Trade” sections ground the exhibit in its location, the West India Docks, upon which the Museum of London Docklands stands. The exhibit copy relates that the docks were “the physical manifestation of London’s corner of the Triangle Trade.” It emphasizes, “the dock was used by at least 22 known slave trading ships between 1802 and 1807.” It then tells the visitor,
“Some of these sailing ships sailed from the dock outside this museum. The sugar and rum they carried back was stored where you are now standing.”
After reading the quote above, I looked down at my feet and observed the floorboards. I imagined the room filled with cones of sugar and barrels of rum. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. “I am standing on sacred ground,” I thought. “This space has been baptized in blood.”
Just as the exhibit does not mince words when discussing the horrors of slavery, it also does not shy away from labeling slave owners and slave traders as such. The exhibit displays Two of London’s Biggest Slave Traders (1794) by Gainsborough Dupont and places labels above the men “slave trader” (see image below). I believe that the curators deliberately chose to reverse their policy of people first language for slave traders. They could have placed labels above these men with their names or with the title of the painting. Instead, the curators strip the slave traders of their individuality and highlight their inhumanity. To me, the act of labeling these men, of condemning these men, felt like a small act of sweet, belated vengeance.
Enslavement and Resistance
The exhibit not only describes enslavement and resistance on a large scale, but also provides a micro-history to humanize the subject. The exhibit displays letter books and plantation record books belonging to John and Thomas Mills, plantation owners on Nevis and St. Kitts during the late eighteenth century. The curators provide short summaries of the books’ contents, full transcriptions of interesting letters and passages, and translations of the transcriptions into modern English. By providing these materials, the exhibit shows visitors the day-to-day experiences of real enslaved people. As a bonus, the materials also give visitors the opportunity to engage with primary sources and glimpse how historians make history.
Sound and Light Show
While I was reading through the “Enslavement” section, the lights in the exhibit area dimmed and a voice boomed out, “you will not speak your own language…you will be taken from your children…you will be violated…you will have no voice…You will not be free.” The voice then said “free” in a number of African languages. A transcript of these phrases was projected over parts of the exhibit. I sat down in front of the projections. Proslavery and antislavery quotes were projected onto the exhibit panels. The proslavery quotes started out white and then faded to red.
I loved the sound and light show because it pulled me out of my head and made me feel. I will never know what it felt like to be enslaved (thank God). However, I was able to get the tiniest glimpse through imagining myself in the situations described by the show. When I heard “you will not speak your own language,” I thought about what it would mean for me to be forced to abandon English. I remembered the time when I was lost in France, scared and unable to ask for directions. When I heard “you will be taken from your children,” I thought about the current immigrant crisis in the USA. I recalled the images of young migrant children in cells, cruelly ripped from their mothers by I.C.E, forced to care for each other. I imagined losing my own mother. I shuddered.
The sound and light show also grabbed the attention of unengaged visitors. When the booming voice called out, an eight-year-old boy stared up, mesmerized. He pulled his mother towards the projections and put his cell phone down. When the show ended, he started asking his mum questions about slavery. “Yes!” I thought. “Success!”
Engagement with New Scholarship
By providing a space for rotating mini-exhibits within the gallery, the Museum of London Docklands has ensured that the London, Sugar, and Slavery exhibit will continue to engage visitors with new ideas. The museum works “with experts to present the latest historical research and with Londoners of all ages to explore the issues covered in the gallery.” When I was at the museum, there was a mini-exhibit on the history of the West Indian Regiments from the eighteenth century until the mid-twentieth century. Personally, I hope that this space will be used to address contemporary slavery, which was not explored by the exhibit.
The exhibit emphasizes the continued relevance of Atlantic slavery by providing several spaces for contemporary reflections on the subject. Throughout the exhibit, there are Plexiglas triangles that contain Young Londoner’s photographs, poetry, prose, and art reflecting on slavery. To create these triangles, the museum assembled eight young Londoners from diverse backgrounds to engage in workshops with museum officers, external trainers, and writers.
The exhibit also has a wall for “Your Comments” and provides cards and pens with which visitors can write. I was surprised to find that visitors from around the globe had left a significant number of thoughtful comments. I assume that the curators weed through the comments, only leaving the best on the wall.
Here are some of my favorites:
The exhibit ends with the poem “The London Breed” by Dr. Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah. According to Zephaniah’s biography, he grew up in an African-Caribbean community in Birmingham and moved to London at age 22, where he revolutionized the British poetry scene. Zephaniah has been deeply engaged in many political movements asserting the rights of black people across the globe.
“The London Breed” celebrates contemporary London’s multiculturalism. It reminds the visitor that the history of Atlantic Slavery is the personal history of every Londoner. Here’s a video of Zephaniah reciting the poem.
The London Breed
by Benjamin Zephaniah
I love dis great polluted place
Where pop stars come to live their dreams
Here ravers come for drum and bass
And politicians plan their schemes,
The music of the world is here
Dis city can play any song
They came to here from everywhere
Tis they that made dis city strong.
A world of food displayed on streets
Where all the world can come and dine
On meals that end with bitter sweets
And cultures melt and intertwine,
Two hundred languages give voice
To fifteen thousand changing years
And all religions can rejoice
With exiled souls and pioneers.
I love dis overcrowded place
Where old buildings mark men and time
And new buildings all seem to race
Up to a cloudy dank skyline,
Too many cars mean dire air
Too many guns mean danger
Too many drugs means be aware
Of strange gifts from a stranger.
It’s so cool when the heat is on
And when it’s cool it’s so wicked
We just keep melting into one
Just like the tribes before us did,
I love dis concrete jungle still
With all its sirens and its speed
The people here united will
Create a kind of London breed.
London, Sugar, and Slavery compellingly presents difficult truths about Atlantic slavery, including the significant role Londoners played in it, and its relevance today. The exhibit is particularly deft at getting visitors emotionally invested in the history. If you want to learn about slavery or best practices for interpreting a difficult past, you should head to the Museum of London Docklands!