Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Hidden Culture.

February 23rd, 2010 · No Comments

As the weeks progressed more and more movements became introduced to me, some I tackled with ease and others not so much. The interesting thing I began to learn about Capoeira was how intricate it was as an art form. Although many of the movements were big and about opening and closing your body to your opponent as a means of attack and defense the variety of movements that could be used in either situation were endless. Depending on the skill level of you and your opponent determines the speed and interaction of the game, but Ash, the Wednesday instructor expressed was that regardless of the skill level, whether it’s someone’s first day or 30th year, anyone can play capoeira.

The next few classes became more and more rigorous but one thing that I definitely appreciated was the fact that after two weeks I was no longer waking up sore. After the first day of class I woke up with an indescribable pain, my bones, muscles, head, feet, and body hurt to no end. It felt as if a sumo wrestler played a practical joke on me and Jumped 20 feet in the air and landed on me. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to tolerate the pain, anymore, but Ash assured me that after the fourth class I would be used to it. We learned a couple new kicks, and counters but what interested me the most was the history of Capoeira, and when it was created. At the last 15 minutes of class the beginners and the more advanced come in and form a Rhoda and either learn songs or discuss the history of Capoeira before we work our last Rhoda.

Rod, the Friday Capoeira instructor, described to us the early teachings of Capoeira and some of the early beliefs of how it was played. In one such class he stated that Capoeira Angola the traditional of Capoeira was believed to be played underneath the slave owners houses. Like America Brazil was colonized by European powers, and brought enslaved Africans over to help cultivate their new founded territory. The slaves of Brazil were believed to be placed underneath the slave owners house and practiced Capoeira in these confined spaces. This is why the theory exist that Capoeira Angola is so  close to the ground because in order to be able to play the slaves had to use the little confined spaces available to them. A second part of the hidden culture of Capoeira that Rod revealed was the purpose of the Rhoda. Besides being the cultural space of Capoeira its significance holds more meaning than just the cultural space it represents. Because Capoeira was outlawed in Brazil Capoeiristas/slaves needed to be secretive about their games. The Rhoda allowed the identities of those playing to be concealed, and although the games would get broken up the individuals playing could not get arrested because the Rhoda protected their identity. The Rhoda also made it possible for the audience to always be watching. Because the Rhoda is a circle if the police were to come and try to break up the game, someone in the Rhoda was able to keep watch from all sides and would be able to signal when the police were coming. Although secretive Capoeira has survived over the last three hundred plus years because the culture and its practices have been protected by its people, and its cultural significance is still respected and practice today, even in Norwich………Who Knew?

Tags: Anthony

Perhaps, in the future…

August 25th, 2009 · No Comments

“Slavery, The Scale of Freedom” by Owen. “These scales show how hard it was and can be to achieve liberty and justice when fighting for freedom” reads the sign. The scale, the representation of inequality frightens me.

An introductory passage in the museum describes the need for us to restrain from using historical terms such as “Negro” and “Mulatto” which were derogatory terms during slavery. I think back to the time when in I resided in Azerbaijan, my college-educated parents and friends would refer to anyone who is of  a mixed ethnicity as a “mulatto” which now I know is originated from the word “mule.” And when African American men in United States refer to each other as “Negros” in a “joking” manner. Or when the abolition of slavery in East Indies occurred, the government found a new source of cheap labor in India resulting with 1,500,000 Indians being subjected to the system. Reading novels such as Saalam:Brick Lane, West Indian and South Asian communities are still feeling the effects of abuse put upon them by those who were in a place of power.

Upon visiting the atlantic transatlantic slavery exhibition questions arose: Is freedom truly achieved in England and around the world? Are the facts presented at Docklands Museum part of the past or present (as in certain actions by those in power limit actions of those who have less power)? If my liberal, educated family used a derogatory term “Mullato” and did not even realize how much hurt it held behind it, how do we further educate on the topic of slavery and how much more there is behind it?

With the mixed reviews posted by the museum visitors at the end of the exhibition, I couldn’t help but question the British education system. With the comments ranging from acceptance and understanding to guilt and criticism, I wonder how comfortable the British are with their history and how much they discuss in their secondary school regarding the British participation in transatlantic slavery.

It frightens me that without education, dialogue, and willingness to change and accept the cycle will continue and a new group and culture will suffer from injustice. Words such as “Mullato” and “Negro” will be spoken and “Scales of Freedom” will never reach a balance.



Tags: Jeyla · Museums

Rendered Speechless

August 24th, 2009 · No Comments


Today I was apart of the group that went to the Dockland Museum and finally got to experience what everyone had been raving about yesterday. Like Azul, I had taken the Museum Studies class last semester and put together an exhibit on co-education this summer, so I can no longer look at museums or exhibits without using a critical eye. Hands down, the London, Sugar, & Slavery exhibit was the best I have ever seen. The task and challenge of the curator to take on a subject that is not particularly easy or pleasant was a feat in itself. And the exhibit was absolutely spectacular.

After reading the lists of ships and passengers at the exhibit’s entrance, I was moved by this satirical painting that followed those disturbing lists. The painting was called May Morning by John Collett, 1765, and showed a crowd of people of different ranks and statuses, all white except for one African man in the center of the painting. At first when I looked at the painting, I though it was interesting that, for the 1700s, the African man was the focal point of the picture and was not standing out in any obnoxious way but just blending in. Then I read the description of the painting and found out that it was meant to be a satire. I also noticed that all of the other people had lighter clothes on and were highlighted, while the African man was in the back and dimmed. I found it interesting that this painting could have been viewed in two completely different lights depending on the knowledge known about it beforehand.

P8242340 (sorry it’s blurry, couldn’t use flash).

About halfway through the exhbit I came upon the sight of beautiful china, teacups and saucers and pots. Any other time I would have been delighted at the sight, because I love old teacups and such. But after going through the horrors of the exhibit and seeing the suffering the enslaved Africans had to go through, the sight of these cups full out disgusted me. I knew that people who had no idea of the pain of these people who worked to give them sugar for their tea. I was talking to Audrey, who was viewing the artifacts next to me and she had the same reaction. It is strange how an object that I usually think of as beautiful could be so cruel and disgusting to me.


One of the best points of the exhibit that actually happened in the beginning and resounded in my head while I browsed the exhibit was the words, “This is your history” from the video. I thought it was quite bold, but much needed, of the museum to place those lines simply, but powerfully, at the end of this very moving video. To me, it was like a cold slap in the face, and I believe it was for many other people to, to make them realize that yes this is our history and we have to come to terms with it. Once we accept, learn about it, we can finally move past it, instead of trying to brush this brutal history aside.

This exhibit completely moved me almost to tears. I learned so much from it and was glad to read that a majority of the comment cards were positive about it as well. I hope someday in the near, near future we can all move past pretending the bad parts of our history don’t exist.

Tags: Alli · Museums

Dockland Museum Reactions

August 24th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I would be lying if I said that I was unaffected by the slavery exhibit at the Dockland Museum. I would also be lying if I said that I expected such a reaction. I realize that the types of heinous treatments and horrific events (as depicted in this museum) are all in the past, but imagining how the enslaved Africans must have felt bothered me immensely. In particular, I saw a painting of six Africans enduring six types of torturous punishments (filed teeth and an iron neck brace, for example), each with a gruesome smile. I was disturbed by their expressions and the way that the artist depicted these people. The image, to me, is utterly haunting.

A group of students and I also watched a short video with images and phrases meant to help the viewer better empathize with how the enslaved Africans must have felt. Describing being away from one’s family, having one’s name changed, and being forced to learn a new language and set of customs were included in this portrayal. I could not help but think of Nanzeen, the main character in Brick Lane. Although her situation was entirely different, many of the ways she felt in the novel were the same. Learning to adapt to an English lifestyle after loving her childhood in Bangladesh seemed to have taken an exceedingly negative toll on Nanzeen’s psyche. I was appalled by that; how much worse, then, would I feel if I fully understood the impact that slavery had on the Africans? I was also a bit put-off by a poster showing a picture of Oleaudah Equiano (or Gustavo Vassa), who wrote The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Oleaudah Equiano. He describes his experience in becoming a freed man and moving to London to make a name for himself as both a hairdresser and musician. In the museum’s representation, he is shown as a hero who worked hard to fight against the slave trade. In reality, though, Equiano recounts instances of him actually working as a part of the slave trade. For a period of time, in fact, he was an overseer on a plantation and reports mistreating other slaves. During these events he had already been freed, and thus could have chosen not to act in such a manner. I feel that, although he may have done good things for the African enslaved community, he also stooped to the level of those who formerly oppressed him. I do not think that this should have been overlooked.

Finally, I was moved by a quote from The Negro’s Complaint, written by William Cowper, stating: “Men from England bought and sold me,/Paid my price in palry gold:/But, though theirs they have enroll’d me/Minds are never to be sold.” I can’t pinpoint exactly why I liked the quote, but I did want to share it regardless.

Tags: Amy

What I Did Not Know About Slavery

August 23rd, 2009 · No Comments

As a person who went to urban public elementary, middle, and high schools that were primarily African-American, I used to consider myself well read on the subject of slavery. I was taught very little about world history and anything remotely confrontational. My pre-college history education could probably be described as being very limited in all areas except 2: Slavery and the Civil Rights movement. When a teacher would introduce the subject of slavery I admittedly let out a big sigh, as I really wanted to learn something new.

When I arrived in the slavery section of the Docklands Museum, I quickly began to realize that like most of my early history education I was not taught the full story. I only ever learned about the enslavement of Africans in America and only very briefly covered how the Africans came to be enslaved. The triangle trade route was just a picture in my history book that confused my middle school self; I would stare at the picture wondering why the route went from Britain to Africa and then to the West Indies rather than to America. Also, if asked in my early years of high school to point out the West Indies on a map I probably would not have been able to.

The Docklands Museum focused on the how and the why of slavery in the West Indies (and the Americas) that I was never really exposed to in high school. I learned that the Portuguese were actually the first to start the slave trade, not the English like I was taught. In high school I was taught that England started the slave trade and that they were the only ones completely to blame for its beginning.

I also learned a lot more about what slavery looked like in the West Indies, as opposed to in America. I learned that even after African-Caribbean slaves were given their “freedom”, indentured servitude was used in a way that greatly resembled slavery and that they really were not free at all. I was also able to read profiles of slaves, slave owners, and slave dealers in England and in the West Indies. These profiles enabled me to see the human side of slavery. This, rather than the dates and statistics, made the history of slavery more real for me and gave it a very personal dimension that I found very touching.

The longer I am in England the more I learn, and the more I realize that I have A LOT to learn. The Docklands Museum helped me to see a different side/perspective of a history that I thought I knew a lot about.

Tags: Rebecca

Applying some Museum Studies theory

August 23rd, 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. 

Tags: Azul

London, Sugar & Slavery at the Docklands Museum

August 23rd, 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.

Tags: Museums · Sarah

Docklands Museum

August 23rd, 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.

Tags: Chelsea · Museums