October 15, 2015, by Michael Jennings

Making Slave Trade Legacies visible in British heritage venues

Susanne Seymour is Associate Professor in Geography and a Deputy Director of the Institute of the Study of Slavery at the University of Nottingham. In this blog she reflects on the important though challenging task of integrating histories of slavery in heritage venues ahead of our film screenings and discussion next week.

That there exists a substantial and growing body of research by academics and volunteers alike on Britain’s involvement with slavery cannot be denied. The online databases on the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and the Legacies of British Slave-ownership, books such as English Heritage’s (2013) Slavery and the British Country House, together with a myriad of other case studies bear witness to this. Yet this history of British slavery and the challenges it presents to Britain’s story of itself continue to be avoided, dismissed or marginalised. My personal experience suggests that nowhere is this more true than in heritage venues.

(Edited by Madge Dresser & Andrew Hann, 2013)

(Edited by Madge Dresser & Andrew Hann, 2013)

The power of the heritage industry, both economically and socially, continues to rise. More than places of leisure and entertainment, heritage venues are key sites in the projection of ‘our’ history and the forging of contemporary British identity, including senses of belonging or alienation. That the history of slavery is rarely comprehensively and centrally included, together with the lack of diversity amongst staff in both heritage and research institutions, suggests that the power relations and mentality of the slavery past have not been sufficiently reworked in the world of heritage.

Slave trade legacies logos

The Nottingham Slave Trade Legacies initiative, a collaboration between Bright Ideas Nottingham, members of the local African Caribbean diaspora community and the University of Nottingham, has set out to challenge the gaps in the history of slavery presented in heritage venues and to highlight slavery’s role in the building of modern Britain. In doing so it has questioned the values underpinning the current neglect, highlighted the negative implications of continuing to ignore slavery histories and made suggestions as to how they might be told in sensitive and empowering ways which refuse a replication of colonial power relations and oppose negative stereotyping. A key vehicle has been the two films made by the Nottingham Slave Trade Legacies group, whose members are mainly drawn from the local African Caribbean diaspora community with enslaved ancestors. The first film created through the Heritage Lottery Fund project, The Colour of Money, run by Bright Ideas, Nottingham, reflects on the group’s experiences of visiting a range of heritage venues, including slavery museums, country houses, cotton mills and port cities associated with slavery (see the Slave Trade Legacies website).

'Picking cotton on a Georgia plantation', 1858. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-76385.

‘Picking cotton on a Georgia plantation’, 1858. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-76385.

The second film, entitled Global Cotton Connections: Untangling the Threads of Slavery, made as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council – funded Global Cotton Connections project, led by the University of Nottingham in collaboration with the Universities of Sheffield and Leicester, focuses on the group’s visits to cotton mill heritage venues in the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, Derbyshire and wider knowledge gained about the British cotton industry through the project. Visit the Global Cotton Connections website for more information.

Both films have been shown and discussed by the group since their completion earlier this year and are available on YouTube:

They present an important and on-going challenge to the heritage industry to make the histories and legacies of slavery visible and to rework understandings of Britain and Britishness.

Book online to join Slave Trade Legacies for an evening of film and discussion 6.30pm, Monday 19 October in A30 Lecture Theatre, Nottingham Lakeside Arts. Free, all welcome.

Further reading

BOP Consulting 2012 Responses from the Consultation on Under-represented Heritages. London: Historic England, especially 25-26.

Graham, B J and Howard, P (eds) (2008) The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Aldershot: Ashgate, ch.5 Littler, J 2008 ‘Heritage and Race’ and ch.6 Buciek, K and Juul, K ‘We are Here, Yet We Are Not Here: The heritage of excluded groups’.

Hall, S 1999 ‘Whose heritage? Un-settling the heritage, re-imagining the post nation’. Third Text 13, 49, 3-13

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