Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Applying some Museum Studies theory

August 23, 2009 · 2 Comments

Ever since I took a Museum Studies class at Dickinson, I appreciate exhibitions in a whole different way than I used to. Today I visited the Museum in Docklands, which covers London’s history from its creation, to the present day, particularly focusing on the port as a key element to understand the city’s relationship with the rest of the world.


When I walk into a museum, I try to find the “script” or the underlying message in the exhibit, that is, why are the objects arranged in a particular way and what is the ideology that is being articulated through this arrangement? In the museum I went today, I paid particular attention to the gallery or section entitled “London, Sugar and Slavery”. Apparently, this museum is the only one in London that has a permanent collection that examines the capital’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.  


The information on the exhibit was extremely interesting and I discovered there was much I did not know about the slave trade. But what I thought was most interesting was the way slavery was explained. First, I can imagine that a museum actually acknowledging the atrocities that were committed by Great Britain to its colonies, is a relatively new phenomenon. I believe it is very positive that the museum focuses on the slave trade instead of showing the greatness and opulence of the British empire, which was precisely built upon  the suffering of millions. This always happens to me when I am in a rich European capital. Coming from Latin America, I am aware of how much Europe is to blame for the history of the countries that are now called the Third World. For example, when I was in Spain, whenever I saw an ostentatitous building painted in gold (most of the time they were Churches) I would think: How many people had to die in the mines of Bolivia so that this place would look like this? The same thing happens to me at the British Museum when looking at all the historical objects that were blatently stolen from other countries.

A second aspect of the Museum in Docklands that I observed was the very clear importance of political correctness in the making of the gallery. For example, there was a large wall sign explaining how the museum was particularly careful with the terminology used when referring to slaves, black people or white people. Instead of using the term “slave” they used “enslaved African”, or “European people” instead of “white people”. Third, what I thought was an extremely important piece of information for understanding slavery, was the explanation by Caribbean historian Eric Williams on how slavery was abolished not really because people at the time thought it was morally wrong but because they discovered that it was not longer profitable! Apparently the monopoly of the big slave trading companies where obstacles for free market and the further economic growth of Great Britain. It was clear that every aspect of the exhibition aimed at acknowledging a mistake and judging history. One painting that struck me was a portrait of the most important owner of a plantation in Jamaica, which the museum chose to put next to a title that said “Slave Owner”, instead of writing the man’s name. But the exhibit went even further, so much to the point that there was a projection in which the words that were one pronounced by slaves were now being mouthed by people from different ethnicities, which could lead to the idea that, either some people in London today are suffering almost as much as slaves used to. At the same time, the short film could stand for the idea that every London should be aware of the dark history on which the city was built upon.


More and more, museums have become tools to rectify history, to articulate the government’s mea culpa. I believe the Museum of Docklands is one example of this phenomenon. 

Categories: Azul

2 responses so far ↓

  •   allisonmschell5 // Aug 23rd 2009 at 18:49

    Haha I too, Azul, cannot help but view the didactics and layout of museums in a critical eye ever since I took that class!

    I am excited to observe this museum tomorrow and see how they decide to approach slavery, quite a daunting task for a museum to display and explain! Your analysis of the museum’s script was really insightful, especially with how you explain your outlook on particular buildings and objects. I feel too that it is a positive that they did not shy away from slavery, but took it head on, while trying to be as PC as possible. The best way for people to finally move past such atrocities as slavery is to accept that it is a part of our past and do more things like museum exhibits that educate all the generations.

    What did you think of the Museum of London that we walked through today? I felt that the order with which the different categories were placed were a bit random and disorderly. I felt that at some points they had too many objects and just decided to display them all at once. The strongest part, I felt, was the Roman Londinium display where you could walk through the old town and see the working classes. I did like that much of the museum was geared towards children as well as for adults, but when you make your museum more children oriented it takes it down a level.

  •   mliberty // Aug 24th 2009 at 11:46

    I share your burden, Azul, and Alli, of having put on an exhibit in our Dickinson library and never being able to look at exhibits the same since!
    One thing that I thought was especially interesting about the set up of the Docklands Museum was the first room, which dealt with a lot of the shipping and trade over the Thames, was actually arranges to weave like a winding river! I thought that was a very organic way to get people moving (even if they didn’t know it) the way the river moves.

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