Museums, History, and Community: U.K. Museum Response to the Bicentenary of the 1807 Act of Abolition

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 9:10 AM
Room 310 (Hynes Convention Center)
Geoffrey Cubitt , University of York
This paper will be based on work done as part of the ‘1807 Commemorated' project, based at the University of York, which Laurajane Smith and I co-directed in 2007-9. The project documented and analysed the response to the Bicentenary of the Act of Abolition of 1807 in the UK, especially in the museum sector. As well as carrying out extensive visitor surveys (the subject of a separate paper proposal from Laurajane Smith), the project involved a detailed examination and critical analysis of exhibition content (including language, imagery, use of objects, artwork, spatial layout, etc.) in a wide variety of institutions up and down the country, venturing well beyond such major national institutions as the British Museum, the National Maritime Museum or Liverpool's International Slavery Museum, to embrace also a host of local and regional venues (museums, libraries, archive centres, community projects, travelling exhibitions etc.) This paper will draw examples from this extensive national survey to show how museums and other institutions sought to negotiate the difficulties of a still painful and imperfectly acknowledged history, and to meet the challenges of (at least) two supposedly compatible, but differently focused and tensely related objectives: on the one hand to ‘remind' a predominantly white and middle-class conventional museum-going public of transatlantic slavery's major contribution to British history, and of the brutality and exploitation that were integral to this contribution; on the other hand, to persuade the members of African and African-Caribbean communities within the UK that their history, and the sufferings of their ancestors, were at last being given due acknowledgement, and their voices accorded a place in public discourse on the past and on the nature of British society. The paper will examine the ways in which these two priorities shaped museum discourse on history and on community.