Our trip to the Museum of London Docklands was quite fascinating and not what I expected- in a good way! One of the exhibits that struck me was titled Sugar and Slavery. On the Museum of Docklands website, the description reads
“London, Sugar & Slavery. Visit the permanent exhibition that examines London’s involvement in transatlantic slavery in our thought-provoking gallery, London, Sugar & Slavery, In the setting of this historic sugar warehouse, challenge long-held beliefs that abolition was initiated by politicians and be touched by the real objects.” In the upper right-hand corner, there is a PDF you can download that advertises “revealing our city’s untold history, a short walk that shows some of the city of London’s connections to transatlantic enslavement.” The floor which housed the exhibit displayed shocking information about politicians and people in power being extreme advocates for slavery and how important it was to preserve slavery in the world. Also included was information about strong advocates for freedom and how, slowly but surely, the resistance gained followers.
My favorite part of this exhibit was a brief film that was shown on three screens in the middle of the floor. The picture I included above was taken by me during the film. Though the film was mainly images of words shown across the screen, it had such an impact on my understanding of slavery. My stomach lurched some of the sentences about not being able to have any control or personal autonomy, being starved and beaten and mistreated; the simple words projected onto the screens were startling because of the truth they spoke. The second part of the film focused on the strength that slaves had by living through this and fighting slavery. It was incredible.
And what I loved about it was that the hope didn’t overshadow the atrocities people that were enslaved went through. I’ve seen a lot of places, especially in America, that talk about the devastating, disgusting realities of what the slaves went through, but they try to make the viewer forget about the truth and only remember the hope and strength and happiness of slavery being abolished. The point of those representations is to leave the viewer feeling a sense of pride for their country, not to fully educate about the realities. However, this film in the Museum of Docklands did a phenomenal job of not being solely for the pride and patriotism of the viewer. It presented a truthful representation.
Another section of this exhibit that really stuck with me was the contemporary spin it had on it. There were pictures of black people today in London, explaining how they felt about their race and their place in society. The people shown were proud to be black Londoners and talked about their jobs and home lives. This reminded me of what our class said about Patience Agbabi and how she is focusing on creating a place for blacks in London. If we take these two representations of black in London (and England as a whole), we see two different stories being told: the museum shows the positive side, Agbabi brings to light the difficulties blacks are still facing today in poems like “Foreign Exchange” and “Grey Area.” By making these connections and seeing how the identities aren’t exactly alike, we learn how Englishness is being redefined differently for everyone. Possibly in some areas of London, black Londoners are met with more racism or more acceptance than in other parts. Or, we can think about the audience and the purpose of these representations. The Museum of Docklands is telling the story from a place of power that, because it is one of the museums in London, might want to show a hopeful, brighter side to today’s society when showing the nasty history of slavery. Maybe the museum wants to reinforce that the history is indeed history. Agbabi, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily writing so her audience is comforted or uplifted by her representations of race. She is more focused on telling of her personal experience and the experience she sees of race representations in London. There is so much to consider as to why these representations differ so much.
All in all, this excursion enriched my understanding of the Englishness and the course material, and was a lot of fun!