The UK's Museums Mark Slavery Remembrance Day - August 23 2008

By Marian Cleary | 21 August 2008
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A photograph of a quilt square with a silhouette of Africa

On 23 August last year, people were asked to make squares for a commemorative quilt when they visited Parliament's Abolition 200 exhibition. The finished quilt is now on display at Westminster Hall.

The date for the annual International Day for the Rememberance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was chosen by UNESCO to acknowledge the uprising on August 23 1791 of enslaved people on the island of Santa Domingo – modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This event is seen as crucial in the history of abolition and emancipation.

This year the event coincides with the 60th anniversary of the arrival of ss Windrush and falls close to the anniversary of the day - August 28 - when the Slavery Abolition Act gained Royal Assent in 1833.

All this comes hot on the heals of last year’s Abolition 200 events, which commemorated the British Slave Trade Act, 1807. The Act made the trading, if not the holding of enslaved people illegal.

This year’s anniversary of the Santa Domingo uprising combined with the 175th anniversary of the Slavery Abolition Act and the 60th anniversary of Windrush will be marked around the country by diverse and inspirational events involving both reflection and celebration.

24 Hour Museum takes a look at what has been organised this year by museums and archives to bring slavery out of the history books and into people’s consciousness.

A print of cartoon of the inside of parliament in 1808

Interior of the House of Commons by J Buck. After AC Pugin and T Rowlinson, c1806 © Palace of Westminster

Five museums for whom the history of slavery is central to their collections and locations have collaborated in the a new publication called Unlocking Perceptions.

The publication is the result of a project that has seen The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich; ; British Empire and Commonwealth Museum; Bristol City Museums, Galleries and Archives; and Hull Museums and Art Gallery collaborating in the Understanding Slavery Initiative (USI).

By working with each other as well as schools, LEAs and community educators, the museums have devised a range of projects and resources. These bring to the attention of teachers and museum practitioners the group’s experience of approaching and interpreting the history and legacies of transatlantic slavery.

A photograph black and white 19th century photograph of an enslaved child

The complexity of issues surrounding the history of enslavement - Slavery in Zanzibar, c1890. © National Maritime Museum, London

The easy-to-absorb handbook includes topics such as Addressing the Misconceptions; Working with Collections; and Connections with Contemporary Social and Global Issues. It offers guidelines and advice for those developing museum resources and programmes of studies in schools.

USI has also produced a wealth of related student and teacher resources, including schemes of work and lesson plans which are all free to download from their website. A copy of Unlocking Perceptions can also be ordered from their contact pages.

The resources are priceless for anyone working in museums and education on the subject of enslavement and reveal how museum and education sectors can work in tandem to enable better access to resources to enhance understanding.

USI is funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Children, Schools and Families as part of the Strategic Commissioning National/Regional Partnerships Programme.

A photograph of a museum display

A detail from a display from Liverpool's International Slave Museum. © Redman Design / International Slavery Museum

Parliament is marking its part in the abolition story with a week-long display of a new artefact – a quilt designed by the public and MPs when they visited last year’s, Abolition 200 exhibition, Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600-1807.

They were asked to contribute squares for a quilt, which were either made that day or designs were contributed by email. These were then printed on to fabric.

It is the first time the completed quilt has been shown in public and it can now be viewed by anyone visiting the Your Parliament Exhibition currently in Westminster Hall or anyone taking a guided tour of Parliament from August 23 to the end of the following week.

A print of a photograph in a quilt square of hands in chains

One of the squares of Parliament's commemorative quilt

The idea to commemorate the two Acts of Parliament by linking them through the making and then displaying of a quilt is not a frivolous choice. Quilts have symbolism and historical resonance in the history of enslavement.

For the enslaved and those offering help to people escaping enslavement, quilts were more than decorative. They were a means of communication as well as a way of recording history and cultural knowledge. If hung over fences for instance, they would signal the location of safe houses to people on the run. Sometimes, messages were stitched into them.

The quilt, while only on display briefly for now will be shown in a variety of places in the coming months.

Many of the original designs for the quilt can be viewed on the Parliamentary Archives website, Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600 to 1807.

This website was originally set up to accompany last year’s biennial exhibition and it continues to be a rich source of information about this period in Parliament’s history. New resources and information continue to be added.

The front page of a website

Parliament and the British Slave trade website - new resources continue to be added

While Saturday August 23 2008 is a national event, local museums are putting on special activities to mark local aspects the history of transatlantic slavery.

For instance, s current exhibition, The Longest Journey: From slavery to abolition, will be the focus of a day of celebrations of African and Caribbean culture on August 23. The affects of transatlantic slavery on Essex may be less well known than that associated with the big cities of Bristol and Liverpool.

However this exhibition brings home the history on Chelmsford’s doorstep including the story of Anne Knight, Chelmsford resident and abolitionist. Events will begin at 10.00 am and go on until 4.30 pm. The exhibition is open until August 25.

An old photograph of an old woman

Anne Knight, abolitionist. Courtesy Chelmsford Museum

Hull’s Wilberforce Museum at Wilberforce House has arranged a vocal celebration and remembrance on August 23.

Between 11 am and 1pm people are invited along to Sing Wilberforce and take the opportunity to discover the city’s part in the history of slavery and its abolition.

Singing is not compulsory however the event is seen as a ‘warm up’ for Hull’s part in Sing the Nation the next day!

Bristol’s celebrations on August 23 includes Bristol Black Archives Partnership’s presentation of a free screening of The Elders: When We Came To Britain (2007) at Watershed Media Centre at 12.30 pm.

This event acknowledges not only the significance of the day, but it also marks the 60th anniversary of the arrival of ss Windrush.

An exhibition called Breaking the Chains at Bristol’s British and Commonwealth Museum continues until October 1 this year. It was put on last year to celebrate Abolition 200 and is well worth visiting before it closes.

A photograph of some bags of sugar which say London, Sugar and Slavery

London, Sugar and Slavery at Museum in Dockland, London. Courtesy and © MID

The Musuem in Docklands, London, has the capital's only permanent exhibition about transatlantic slavery, London, Sugar and Slavery. A visit to the exhibition on August 23 will include a memorial event that, as in Bristol, also celebrates Windrush.

An adult-only event, it runs between 10.30 and 4.00 and includes among many other contributions poetry from John Agard and Nyanome African Drummers and dancers.

Liverpool’s International Museum of Slavery is not only remembering August 23 for obvious reasons but is also celebrating its first year since opening on last year’s International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade.

To mark the success of seeing more than 300,000 visitors come through its doors during that time, a new exhibition, We Are One, opens on August 23. This uses the many messages, comments and images left by those visitors.

The messages honestly reflect a range of feelings about the subject and the museum’s place in the city.

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