Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Docklands Museum

August 23, 2009 · 3 Comments

After a bit of trouble navigating the DLR (apparently the train we got on didn’t happen to stop at West India Quay, despite what it said on the map), all thirteen of us arrived at the Docklands Museum after a bit of a hike between the DLR stop we got off at and the DLR stop we were supposed to arrive at. I must admit we were all rather tired and “museumed out” after our walking tour and our trip to the London Museum earlier, but we quickly realized that the Docklands Museum had a lot to offer.

The London Sugar Slavery Gallery exhibit stuck with me the most. I tend to automatically think of slavery as an American phenomenon, something tied in with American plantations and Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, but it was interesting to see the more urban lives of the British African slaves, as well as the fact that many slaves (and later, indentured servants from China and India) were sent to the British-owned sugar plantations in the West Indies. Strolling through the exhibit, I thought it was well done, with equal attention paid to the lives and conditions of the slaves, the Abolishionist movement, and the influence slaves’ work today.

However, upon coming to the end of the exhibit, I was surprised to discover that many visitors to the museum did not find the exhibit satisfactory and were so displeased that they felt the need to leave notes, which the museum had collected into a binder. Several commenters thought the exhibit was a waste of space, since the slave trade and its inhumanity were not the commenters’ faults and they claimed they didn’t need to apologize for it. Others thought the slaves’ plight wasn’t documented graphically enough and that the exhibit glossed over the conditions they lived in and the treatment they faced. Still others were disappointed that the museum had chosen to devote so much space to the slave trade and not as much to British innovators and historical figures. After reading through many of the comments, several of us sat around discussing the complaints and why we found the commenters’ arguments to be inadequate.

Firstly, many of us felt that the fact that the sheer amount of artifacts, quotes, artwork, and lasting influence on today’s British culture merited the inclusion of the exhibit into the Docklands Museum, and that the exhibit clearly and diplomatically relayed all of these things. The exhibit did not ask Britons to apologize for the acts of their forefathers, nor did it seem to try to make a visitor fee guilty for the actions of the past. Secondly, there is a fine line between what is appropriate to be displayed and what is not in a museum which is obviously family-oriented. Given the fact that the museum has younger visitors, as well as visitors who might not want to be confronted with more graphic images and explanations of the slaves’ lives, I would say that they did an accurate, tasteful job of describing their conditions and treatments. Thirdly, I don’t believe that the Docklands Museum claims to represent every aspect of London and its history: it’s simply impossible to fit so much information into one building, and not all of what can be exhibited can fit in one museum, either. There are many other museums in the city which undoubtedly have exhibits on the more well-known London historical figures and innovators, and though some commenters disagreed, we found the slavery exhibit to be refreshing and somewhat unexpected, since we are accustomed to only hearing about the American side of the slave trade and the consequences there.

I suppose there is ignorance everywhere.

Categories: Chelsea · Museums
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3 responses so far ↓

  •   jonesma // Aug 23rd 2009 at 16:16

    On your point about trying to fit too much of London’s history into one museum: I think it’s great that this museum didn’t try to squash all two thousand years of the city’s history into one small museum. That is one of the problems I have with the Museum of London. They are trying to do too much in too little space, and the result is that I feel as though I’ve been on a roller coaster; I’ve gotten a glimpse of a lot but haven’t actually taken anything in. I’m glad that the Dockland’s museum goes more in depth on one particular moment in history. It should be a good visit tomorrow if that’s the case.

  •   mertnofa // Aug 23rd 2009 at 18:21

    I’m not entirely sure that there was not a little bit of intention of punishing the British visitor for the atrocities commited in the past… I think the questions that have to be asked are, should the British visitor be blamed? And more importantly, would it be legitimate to punish the British people? Because slavery is a crime that was never trialed…

  •   allisonmschell5 // Aug 23rd 2009 at 19:10

    I thought it was interesting Chelsea that you observed that many people were not satisfied with the exhibit, although it does not surprise me. I find that people will be displeased with something if it brings up something controversial and unpleasant from the past. Some visitors are there to just look at pictures and artifacts and want to be fed with information. When they are faced with an exhibit that they actually have to think and feel and comprehend that this was a bad part of the past, they tend to be displeased. To dwell on such bad parts of our past histories does not feel good, but in order to move past this, cultures need to accept and pronounce it more instead of trying to water it down or brush over it in our history. Of course, I know this is not every visitor or every person. I enjoyed all of the points you discussed and how the museum is not imposing anything upon the visitors except to keep an open mind and think. I am really looking forward to seeing this exhibit!

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