Slavery, Colonialism and Museums Representations in Great Britain: Old and New Circuits of Migration

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In the 1950s, a majority of white people in Britain had never seen a 'coloured colonial immigrant' in person. The Black (1) population was tiny in number, and concentrated in the historic port cities of Liverpool, Bristol, London and Cardiff (Rose, et al. 1969). But all that has changed. By 2011 the Black population in Britain numbered more than 1.5 million, and there are sizeable Black populations in all the major cities. At the same time, even larger numbers of immigrants and settlers arrived from India, Pakistan and later, Bangladesh; by 2011 they numbered over 3 million. And in the last decade, Britain has seen the arrival and settlement of hundreds of thousands of new migrants--EU citizens from Poland and Romania, and refugees from nations in Africa that were not part of the British Empire (like Somalia, Congo and Rwanda). There are similar patterns elsewhere in Europe, particularly in former imperial nations, like the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Spain; as well as in Germany and Italy (Hine, Keaton and Small 2009).

In Britain, through the 1950s and beyond, most museums said little or nothing of slavery and empire, and they ignored, downplayed, or marginalized explicit discussion of slavery and its legacy. If they said anything it was to glorify Empire, and/or British abolition of the slave trade, and they focused mainly on material culture, rather than human chattel. They housed objects and art that presented crude and mono-dimensional stereotypes of Africa, Africans and slavery; and almost none had Black people involved as agents, or organisers. They were overwhelmingly visited by white people. This was also the case for the series of world's fairs that took place in Britain (and elsewhere) in the 19th century (Blanchard et al. 2008). And it was true for monuments and statues that memorialized empire (Dresser 2007).

Today (2011) in Britain, if you look in the press, on television, in popular culture, it seems like the legacy of slavery is a key aspect of British museums. There have been temporary or permanent exhibits in the main museums in Liverpool, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham and Hull (wallace 2006). And of course, let's not forget London (Littler and Naidoo 2005). Some museums now have permanent exhibits and galleries of slavery, colonialism, or on Africa. Many are rich, textured, progressive even, and have striven to convey a wide range of the Black experience, in Africa and the Diaspora. In several of them there is significant critique of Empire, critique of slavery, even of slave trade abolition. And Black people are more actively involved than ever before--as curators, managers, writers--though still in numbers below their proportions in the population (Tibbles 1994; Visram 2002; Young 2002; Tulloch 2005). And there has been extensive outreach to draw on resources, insights, and information from across the African Diaspora and Africa itself. Some of these activities began several decades ago, but the biggest spur occurred in 2007, which was the 200th anniversary of the legal abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. The anniversary attracted extensive scholarly interest, a wide range of museum initiatives and significant funds from government (Hilton 2010). Many Black and multi-racial organizations were involved, and there were increased calls for reparations (Brennan 2005, 2008).

Migration and museums brings together two fields of studies for which there are large and fascinating literatures and, which are not usually associated with one another. But with regard to Black people and the legacy of slavery/colonialism and museums in Britain I argue that the two fields are intricately and, in fact, inextricably related, to one another. we know all the reasons migration is important in and of itself, but why are museums important, and how are they connected to migration? Museums are important because they are one institutional site among many where hostile representations, images and discourses of Black people and Africa continue to occur. …


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