Rethinking Bloomsbury: A Public Roundtable Discussion

By: James Dawkins

1826 Map of Bloomsbury, Western SegmentRethinking Bloomsbury was a public roundtable discussion held at UCL’s Petrie Museum on Tuesday 26th April, 2014.  This interdisciplinary event was organised by UCL’s Legacies of British Slave-ownership project (LBS) in partnership with the university’s Petrie Museum, and sponsored by the Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies (J-Figs).

London’s Bloomsbury area is prominent for its connection to art, culture, education and literature.  More specifically, it is a district that has historical nexuses to well-known writers, is the home of some of London’s best loved museums and is the base of UCL’s main campus.  Having said this, new research being undertaken across a number of UCL’s faculties has uncovered a myriad of forgotten connections which have led the university to reconsider the historical representation of the area.  The Rethinking Bloomsbury event emerged as a result of these findings and provided a stimulating intellectual forum within which this new research was discussed.   Five UCL-based speakers were invited to provide a five minute presentation on their work.  This was followed by a thought provoking discussion amongst the audience and the presenters regarding the finer points of their studies and how their findings can be used to enrich current understandings on the history of Bloomsbury.

The first presenter, Caroline Bressey, used paintings and drawings of Black people to speak about their academic, theatrical and political presence in Bloomsbury between 1919 and 1939Debbie Challis spoke about Francis Galton and Flinders Petrie and their impact on concepts and practices of racial science in Britain.  Subhadra Das elaborated upon activities of Francis Galton and discussed the collection of his belongings bequeathed to UCL and his ideas on eugenics.  Nicholas Draper gave a talk on Bloomsbury’s connection to British slavery and highlighted the considerable number of slave-owners that once resided in the area.  The final speaker, John J Johnston, spoke about Bloomsbury’s LGBT community and illuminated a number of historical figures from the academic and creative worlds who contributed to Bloomsbury’s diverse ambience.

We had a great turn out for the event which was rounded off with a drinks reception, exhibition on the slave-owners of Bloomsbury and further discussion on the snippets of research presented earlier on in the evening.