Myths About Race And The Slave Trade At Manchester Museum

By Rose Shillito | 24 August 2007
Shows poster with four brains with labels underneath

Anti-racism poster by the European Youth Campaign Against Racism, dating from 1990s. © The Manchester Museum

To mark this year’s bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, a thought-provoking new exhibition explores the racist thinking behind the transatlantic slave trade and looks at the role that Victorian institutions and museums played in perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Myths about Race is an ongoing exhibition at The Manchester Museum, running as part of the Revealing Histories: Remembering Slavery project which is taking place at eight museums and galleries across Greater Manchester.

Objects and images on display reveal how racist ideas were supported by museums, due to a large extent to the scientific racism that emerged in the 19th century. Alongside this is material from individuals and organisations in Manchester who have worked to dispel these myths.

Shows lines of text on dark background

Powerful testimony from slaves forms a thought-provoking wall display as part of the Revealing Histories trail. © The Manchester Museum

With the aim of making people think about the role of the museum in constructing racial stereotypes, the exhibition looks at the three key myths at the heart of racist thinking.

These include the notion that different ethnic groups formed a hierarchy, with African people being somehow less ‘evolved’ than Europeans; that the Ancient Egyptians were white, as perpetuated in films such as Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor; and that the enslaved Africans were victims or merely objects of pity.

Ornate African objects are displayed alongside material from anti-racist campaigns and racist images that at the time were considered to be ‘scientific’. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to question the displays and contribute to discussions, and these responses will help shape how material is displayed in future.

Sam Alberti, Lecturer and Research Fellow at The Manchester Museum, said: “We involved a wide group of activists, collectors, academics, curators and archivists, from inside and outside the Museum to create this exhibition. We want to provoke debate and discussion around the issues. You may or may not agree with what we say, but we encourage you to respond.”

Shows rows of displayed objects related to slavery including whips

Objects related to the transatlantic slave trade, including whips. © The Manchester Museum

One of the most shocking exhibits in the show is the 18th-century scientific treatise, An Account of the Regular Gradation, by the physician Charles White. Written in 1799, the book includes a scale of humankind that shows the 'negro' as being the lowest form of life and compares Africans to animals. This includes the famous illustration showing the ascending sizes of brains of animals and man, with the African brain being at the lower end of the scale.

The curators decided to include such disturbing artefacts in order to illustrate how racist ideas were officially sanctioned by the presiding scientific community of the day, and also to use them as a platform for discussion.

Another exhibit from an anti-racism campaign uses the myth of the intellectual inferiority of African people in order to put out a strong message about racism. The 1990s poster from the European Youth Campaign Against Racism exposes this racist notion by showing four brains, with the one that is smaller than the others labelled ‘Racist’.

Shows bust of African man

Zulu ‘Dagga Smoker’ bust, showing exaggerated features. © The Manchester Museum

There is an exciting programme of events linked to the exhibition that kicks off with the Myth about Race Opening Day on Saturday August 25, during which there will be tours, African storytelling and the opportunity to handle objects.

A powerful performance entitled This Accursed Thing, which looks at the slave trade through the eyes of people who were there, will take place around the museum from Saturday August 25 to Wednesday August 29.

Related events organised for October to coincide with Black History Month include a debate entitled Are Museums Racist? to be held on Thursday October 4, 6.30-8pm. Led by a discussion panel, the debate will centre on some of the responses to the Myths about Race exhibition from members of the public. Revealing Histories, a day of family-oriented activities with slave trade themes, takes place on Saturday October 27, 1-4pm.

Shows two men, one dressed as African tribal leader and one dressed as 18th century gentleman, standing in front of wall of text

This Accursed Thing performance takes place around the museum. © The Manchester Museum

Later in the year, Dr Gareth Griffiths from Manchester University will conduct a seminar focusing on the foundation of the British Empire and the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Presenting Contested Pasts is on Wednesday December 5 2007, 3-5pm.

For more details about the events listed or to join the online discussion forum, see www.revealinghistories.org.uk.

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