The London, Sugar & Slavery gallery opened in 2007, to mark the 200th anniversary of the end of the British trade in enslaved African people. London, Sugar & Slavery: 10 Years uses some of the thousands of visitor comment cards we’ve received over the past decade to reflect on the gallery and its contents. You can read a wide range of viewpoints, written by visitors from 6 to 93 years old, including school children, grandparents with their grandchildren, and visitors from Europe, the Caribbean, North America and, of course, London. London, Sugar & Slavery is the only permanent display in London to solely focus on the history of the slave trade and slavery. Since 2007 the gallery has been visited by around 2 million people, including 250,000 school pupils.
After knocking off my list most of the central London major museums, including the main Museum of London, I headed down the DLR to Museum of London Docklands last week. While I LOVE (obviously) the Suffragette related section of the Museum of London, apart from that I’ve never been massively struck (apart from the amazing Fire of London exhibition). So, I had pretty low expectations – of which were very quickly surpassed.
Before I went, I read the page quoted above about the visitor cards put on display, which perhaps unusually was what first intrigued me to visit. After visiting the Slavery Museum in Liverpool a couple of years ago, I knew that representations of the heritage of Slavery can be difficult, inevitably. I was intrigued to see how this translated into visitor opinion.
Fascinatingly, not all of the comments were wholly positive. Most of them were, it’s a good exhibition, but not all. For example: “Thank you, but you cannot just close it off in the 1800s just cos it was ‘abolished’ – aftermath? What about the numerous people from Asia? But thank you.” But, what struck most was the importance the display places on visitor comments. There could be the impression that comment cards are a fairly futile activity, compared to the grandness of curation, but the display and labels depicting its importance certainly counter that.
The centre stage given to the visitor comments on display spotlights their fundamental importance to a discussion of a difficult history. Counter to the impression that the museum’s narrative is the only interpretation, the inclusion of negative visitor comments (of course only the constructive criticism) shows that understanding of history develops over time – there isn’t one ‘accurate’ way to share the heritage of slavery.
London, Sugar & Slavery on the whole is open about the complexity of displaying such a contentious topic. At the start of the exhibition, an infographic opens the narrative by confronting terminology. For example, the interpretation intentionally uses the term ‘enslaved Africans’ instead of ‘slaves’. While on the surface, the difference between these terms might appear slight, but of course linguistically the difference is enormous – enslaved Africans represents the people as human, highlighting the victims humanity and African identity that would’ve been taken away when slaves. Consideration of complexities such as this has clearly opened public discussion in a way that may not have been otherwise, which is apparent by the sheer variety of visitor comments.
Curated by Kirsty Warren, a post-doctoral fellow in the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham, the integral necessity of collaboration is highlighted. London, Sugar & Slavery is considerate, compelling, and while contentious makes positive steps to be inclusive and not shy away from the complexities of a difficult history.