by Catherine Hall
At the beginning of August I spent a week in the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington talking with a group of international curators and historians. We were planning a travelling exhibition on the slave trade and slavery – one that could move between Dakar, Brussels, Liverpool, Rio, Washington and Cape Town and tell a global story – no small challenge! The Museum itself is an inspiring place to be, the product of many years struggle and many years work, the last of the Smithsonian museums which aim to represent US life and culture. It has been an incredible success, bringing in literally millions of visitors, both African American and others, and telling a very different history to the conventional US account, a history rooted in slavery and the long struggle for freedom, the centrality of ‘race’ to US culture and the making of both black and white Americans. Blazoned on the wall as you step down into the history galleries are James Baldwin’s marvellous words, a motif for the place, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
The idea of an international travelling exhibition is the brainchild of a partnership between the Centre for Slavery and Justice at Brown University and the African American Museum. They initiated a project which has brought in museums, universities and public historians from West Africa and the Cape, Belgium and the Netherlands, France, the UK and the US. The objective is to develop a global story about colonial and racial slavery and its foundational role in the making of the modern world. The aim is to show how this history links Africa, Europe and the Americas in ways that link peoples and places; that there is a global story of power and exploitation that long precedes contemporary globalisation yet has important connections to the present. The work will involve objects and archives, artists and designers as well as curators and historians. Particular attention will be paid to the legacies and afterlives of slavery. At the meeting in Washington we began to map out some possible themes and storylines for the exhibition – focusing on the many dimensions of the slavery business, the making of gender and racial difference, bodies and knowledges, the importance of place, and the building of freedom. The plan is that over time a workshop will be held in each place that plans to host the exhibition, exploring specific links between the locality and the global story. An exhibit specific to the locality will then be developed to sit alongside the travelling exhibition, highlighting local stories and the ways in which they connect with contemporary issues of inequality. The hope is that this can make a contribution to the work of recognition and reparation, the work of challenging the destructive effects of colonialism and empires.
This is an ambitious agenda for the years ahead – but there is both excitement about such a collaborative project, and a determination amongst the participants to do this work. So watch this space!