Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

London, Sugar & Slavery at the Docklands Museum

August 23, 2009 · 2 Comments

This afternoon, my group and I found our way to the Docklands Museum near Canary Wharf. We encountered some trouble en route when our DLR conductor announced the train would not be stopping at West India Quay. We got off at Westferry and a friendly gentleman on the platform pointed us in the right direction. As his directions weren’t entirely clear, we had to ask two other people where to go along the way. Astonishingly, we didn’t get lost and all 13 of us made it there with time to spare.

The museum as a whole was by far the most enjoyable of the museums I’ve visited so far. The exhibits started on the third floor with Roman London and moved on chronologically down to the first floor. Unlike the London Museum, the path through the exhibits was clear and easy to follow. There was a good mix of the typical museum voice narrative to read on the wall, which provided important information about the both the time period and the artifacts displayed, and interactive media, which provided more in-depth histories. Additionally, experiential pathways that recreated parts of London helped visitors to understand (through sight, sound, and smell!) what various parts of the city were once like. My favorite of these recreations was Sailortown, which takes one through the winding streets of Wapping in the mid 19th century past “the wild animal emporium,” the “ale house,” and the “sailors’ lodging house.”

The most engaging of the galleries was “London, Sugar & Slavery,” an exhibit about London’s role in the Atlantic Slave Trade. After taking “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Africans in the Making of the New World,” with Professor Ball last semester, I was especially interested in seeing how the museum’s perspective compared to those taught in the class. Surprisingly, the first sign that caught my attention was one toward the beginning of the gallery entitled: “Terminology.” This sign made visitors aware of how the museum intended to use specific words. For example, the museum emphasized that it would use “enslaved Africans” instead of “slave,” as “slave” is a more dehumanizing words. The sign also defined vocabulary words the average visitor might be unfamiliar with. I’ve never seen anything similar to this in American museums. Terminology is an important process in the exhibition development process, as I learned this summer during my internship at the 9/11 museum in Manhattan. Especially for sensitive topics, it is important that the terminology be deliberate and exact. I was impressed that the museum chose to tell its visitors right up front precisely how words would be used in attempt to avoid any misunderstanding or misinterpretation. This reminds me of many scholarly articles I’ve read where historians choose to clarify vocabulary for the reader before jumping into denser material and analysis.

The only part of the Slavery gallery that I noticed disagreed with what I had previously learned was a sign describing the “Triangle Trade” model for explaining how the Atlantic Slave Trade Operated, which involves ships leaving from Europe, picking up slaves in Africa, then sailing to the Americas, selling off their slaves, and returning to Europe h sugar and rum. Due to numerous circumstances, the slave trade was not so simple. Just for one example: slaves ships were specifically designed to carry human cargo; therefore, it would be impractical to use the same ships to transport both slaves and rum on the same vessel. However, I do understand why the museum would choose to use this model (as do most middle and high schools in the U.S. It is basic and easy to understand. The model gives a general idea of what happened, but avoids some of the grittier details.

Finally (whew!), I found the collection of comment cards about the Slavery gallery to be rather interesting. There was a shockingly wide range of reactions. Some people loved it and others absolutely HATED it. There were some comments that other guests chose to respond to. Many of the negative comments read along the lines of: “The slave trade isn’t my fault, so why should I care?”; “This isn’t London. What about all of the white workers who lived in terrible conditions?”; and “This is crap. I’m never coming to this museum ever again.” Some of the more positive responses included those commenting on the importance of treating all human beings as equals and working to fight the  injustices that exist today. One particular comment that sticks in my mind was left by a person who felt the exhibit didn’t successfully address the sheer brutality of the slave trade. This, too, reminded me of some of the issues faced at the 9/11 museum. As 9/11 is such a recent and traumatic event, the museum often has to make decisions about what information is historically necessary and what is simply gruesome and voyeuristic. Finding a balance of between representative and appropriate is a daunting task.

Categories: Museums · Sarah
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2 responses so far ↓

  •   aidanoshea // Aug 23rd 2009 at 17:18

    Well done, Sarah. This pretty much summarizes my view of the exhibit. Thanks for mentioning the part about the terminology. The “tell us what you think” comment I found most interesting was the one you mentioned that asked for more recognition of the white working class’ contributions to trade in London. This comment ignored the fact that the rest of the museum did a fairly thorough job of addressing said contributions, and the fact that the slave trade is certainly part of London’s history, as commerce in London was so financially dependent on it.

    This comment is interesting also because it went on to brand the exhibit, I believe, as representing entirely a middle class viewpoint intended to manipulate people into forgetting about the plight of the white working class. This got me thinking about how race complicates and perhaps exacerbates class problems in Britain (rather than mitigating class dispute, as race sometimes has in America), which is a concept I hadn’t given much thought to before.

  •   roseam // Aug 23rd 2009 at 19:22

    First, it both shocks and disturbs me that people would have such hostile reactions towards an exhibit like this one. Even if it’s not a particular generation’s fault, it’s important to learn the past lest it be repeated.

    ‘For example, the museum emphasized that it would use “enslaved Africans” instead of “slave,” as “slave” is a more dehumanizing words.’ I also found this to be quite interesting. It would never have occurred to me that “enslaved African” is a better term than simply “slave”, but I suppose it shows that the Africans were more victims of circumstance than objects.

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