‘Birmingham: its people, its history’: representing slavery in a civic museum – Part II

By: Kate Donington

(This piece follows on from ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’: representing slavery in a civic museum – Part I, which can be found below.)

The answer is undoubtedly yes as the gallery’s curator Henrietta Lockhart made clear when she said that ‘there are very important national and international stories represented here… like the history of the slave trade and the abolition of the slave trade.’[1] Lockhart makes a vital distinction in her statement between the history of the slave trade and the history of its abolition. The gallery does not simply cloak itself in the mantle of celebratory abolitionism, although there were notable Birmingham residents such as Joseph Sturge who played a major role in the process and they are rightfully acknowledged. Olaudah Equiano, the ex-slave who became a writer and abolitionist visited Birmingham and wrote a letter to the city’s antislavery activists to express his gratitude for their efforts and he too is remembered in the gallery. This is not however the visitor’s initial encounter with the subject, instead when entering the gallery which explores Birmingham in the eighteenth century the audience is greeted by a large exhibition panel upon which is printed a trade card for a Birmingham gun manufacturer. The image along with the caption above it – ‘Birmingham and the Slave Trade’ – makes Birmingham’s connection to the slavery business absolutely explicit.

Birmingham’s manufacturing history is interwoven with the story of both slavery and empire. The goods for which Birmingham grew famous, including guns and metalwork, are here displayed as objects of trade. They stand in for the transatlantic human relationships which facilitated Britain’s imperial and commercial ambitions. In a period in which Britain was increasingly a part of a global economy Birmingham products found their way to America, Asia, Europe and Africa. Guns were used to trade for enslaved Africans and manacles forged in the city were used to keep people captive. The people of Birmingham consumed slave produced goods such as sugar, coffee and tobacco. Industries were established to provide the chinaware and metal tongs which were the hallmarks of newly fashionable leisure activities like taking tea. One of the display cases brings together a selection of objects which visually make the link between trade, industry, slavery and consumption, allowing the visitor to understand how the component parts of the story interacted. The juxtaposition of a set of leg chains and a delicate silver sugar bowl is indicative of the colonial violence which underpinned metropolitan polite society.

There are interactive exhibits which explore the people and places associated with the slavery business. Given that thousands of school children will come to visit the exhibition touch screen technology is employed as a means of engaging a younger audience. [2] Interestingly one of the individuals implicated in the controversy over slavery was one of Birmingham’s most famous sons – Matthew Boulton – whose Soho factory is part of the interactive. James Walvin has pointed out that although Boulton was an abolitionist he ‘developed extensive business dealings with the plantations from his factory at Soho in Birmingham… Along with James Watt, Boulton developed new steam engines that were sold to the sugar plantations.’[3] Including these kinds of complications helps to make the story of Birmingham’s interaction with slavery a more nuanced one.

One of the things I enjoyed most was the inclusion of work by school children who had visited the gallery. The presence of their voice in the exhibition speaks to the continued importance of the subject of slavery and abolition as a compulsory part of the national curriculum. The children had been inspired by a display which tells the stories of three African American abolitionists who visited Birmingham – Frederick Douglas, Amanda Smith and Peter Stanford. Quotes from the children sat alongside those of the abolitionists and the children’s artwork was included underneath the text. Incorporating the perspectives of local children says a lot about the ways in which museum culture has become more inclusive and less hierarchical in its approach to the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Another exhibit – a bag made of cotton and depicting an enslaved mother – was created in 2007 by the Sparkbrook Caribbean and African Women’s Development Initiative. Both the bag and the children’s artwork challenge the audience to think about what a museum is, what it can be and who belongs inside it. Ordinary people are part of the narrative here – indeed they are helping to make it. Authorship and ownership go hand in hand – this is a space in which Birmingham people are encouraged to go in order to see themselves reflected and valued as part of the heritage and culture of the city. It is to the credit of BMAG that what they have chosen to reflect does not shy away from slavery as an important part of the city’s history.

[2] For an alternative perspective on the use of touch screen technology in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) see , Stuart Burch, ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’, Museums Journal, Issue 133/1pp. 42-5.