Lessons we learned from Understanding Slavery





Last night’s #MuseumHour on International Slavery Remembrance Day raised lots of interesting questions about representing the histories and legacies of Transatlantic Slavery in museums. It put me in mind of 2007 when the sector came together to mark the bicentenary of the act to abolish transatlantic slavery (heady days – when there was money and government support for this sort of thing!) and all that was learned along the way.

The Understanding Slavery Initiative (USI) was just one of hundreds of related projects going on in museums and galleries around the country at the time. As a new recruit to the National Maritime Museum’s Learning team, in 2005, I was lucky enough to be involved.

It was a brilliant, simple idea (not mine) – get museums from port cities around the country to partner with the National Maritime Museum, combine their collections and expertise, do some research and consultation, and create a definitive approach to teaching and learning about Transatlantic Slavery.  This simple idea became an influential project spanning nearly 10 years (until the money stopped in 2010…). It even managed to get Transatlantic Slavery onto the curriculum (until 2014….).

We spent a lot of time, money and meetings learning important lessons about representing the histories and legacies of Transatlantic Slavery and about teaching it to children and young people.These are some of them.  It’s by no means a definitive guide – just some of the (all important) basics, which often get lost in the debates and discourse surrounding this complex and difficult subject. Most of these principles can also be applied to  representation in displays, working with different audiences and to other histories.


Some lessons learned

Use the present to connect to the past: the legacies of Transatlantic Slavery are everywhere. In the music we listen to, the buildings in our towns and cities – and in the country piles, the people around us and the food we eat. Using the familiar to illustrate the relevance of this history to students’ own lives helps to hook them in and spark their curiosity.

‘Safe spaces’ for learning: this is a brutal and complex history. It can raise difficult questions, issues and feelings of guilt and blame. Being clear about ground rules at the start of sessions and workshops, and suggesting post-visit follow-ups back at school helps promote an atmosphere of trust and respect, and fosters discussion and debate.

Use objects – with care: we all know handling objects are a powerful resource for teaching history. All our good practice around using them for museum learning applies here. But handle with care. Conveying the gravitas behind the history is paramount. Consider using fewer objects for greater impact. Remind students that leg irons, whips, collars are instruments of torture and they may prefer not to touch them (even replicas). And while trying on helmets, hats and uniforms are all good for other object handling sessions, there is no room for the trying on of shackles!

The same applies to images, which are often derogatory and show violent or upsetting scenes. Reminding students that these are (usually) artists impressions and exploring why they were created can be useful for unpicking some of their inherent messages and the attitudes of the time, and for avoiding gratuity.

Humanise the history: the numbers associated with the history of Transatlantic Slavery are important – a legalised system that lasted hundreds of years and exploited millions of African men, women and children. But they are often too big to convey the weight of the history’s impact on people. Focusing on the experiences of a small number of individuals can help humanise a system that viewed African people as property. The lives of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince, for example, are well documented.

Create balance, foreground resistance:  Transatlantic Slavery is a history of exploitation but also one of survival. Providing a balance of perspectives – African and European – and  exploring the many ways in which African men, women and children resisted their enslavement (from keeping cultures alive through music, language and craft, to the underground railroad, the Maroons and Toussaint Louverture), maintained their dignity and played an essential part in Transatlantic Slavery’s eventual abolition, is key.

Create balance, look at what’s missing: like most histories, a balance of voices and perspectives has not been conveniently collected and preserved. Asking questions like Whose voices are being represented by the images or objects in your museum? What messages are they conveying? Whose voices are missing? Why? How can we find them? can all deepen understanding about multiple perspectives.

Take your time This is not a subject that can be rushed. Do a little well. Take time for reflection.

Younger children: Transatlantic Slavery can be approached with younger children by focusing on the building blocks they will need when they revisit it later in their (school) lives. We start teaching children maths with simple concepts like numbers, adding up and taking away, rather than algebra, pythagorus and vector theory; we can do the same with this difficult and complex history. Exploring West African countries and cultures; understanding where coffee, chocolate and sugar come from and how they end up in our supermarkets; investigating the history and meanings of family names; finding out about life on board ship or simply knowing where Europe, Africa and the Americas are on a world map are all useful starting topics.

Language is important:  the way we talk about the history reflects fundamentally important concepts and helps prevent stereotyping. For example, ‘enslaved’ not ‘slave’-  no-one chooses to be a slave, it’s something that someone does to someone else. ‘Atlantic crossing’, not ‘middle passage’ – it’s only the ‘middle’ passage if you start from a European perspective, from an African perspective it was the start of a horrific voyage. Avoid collective terms like ‘Africans’ or ‘Europeans’ where possible, humanise the history by talking about ‘men, women, children’. There are countless examples of careful use of language – but you get the idea.

Learning about Africa before Transatlantic Slavery is important: understanding something of the people affected by the history and their lives before slavery helps put events in context and foster connections with the past. Knowing that Africa is a diverse continent, made up of over 50 countries with people speaking over 1500 different languages, and a rich history  – which didn’t start with Transatlantic Slavery – helps humanise a history that can sometimes feel a bit long ago and far away.

Transatlantic Slavery was a particular type of slavery: it was an organised, legalised system, where one race exploited another over hundreds of years. This ‘chattel’ slavery de-humanised people, treating them as the property of others with no rights of their own, to be used, bought and sold – like cattle. Legacies such as racism and the decimation of many African countries still remain. It’s useful to draw and maintain the distinction between Transatlantic Slavery and other historical and contemporary forms of slavery.

Transatlantic Slavery is a shared history – it spans cultures and countries. 

Dig deep – most historical museum collections in Britain have a link to Transatlantic Slavery somewhere. It’s a history that generated untold wealth in Britain, over centuries. There were a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, for a long time! It is important to acknowledge its existence in our wider themes and stories.

Expertise is vital – a sound knowledge of the histories and legacies of Transatlantic Slavery is essential for the effective teaching and dissemination of the subject. The National Maritime Museum still provides annual training for the Learning and wider teams representing this history.


I’ve barely scratched the surface here – I could go on all day to be honest. Do get in touch if you’d like to know more or have something to add.

USI produced a website full of useful information and resources – it could do with a spruce up but the content is still spot on: UnderstandingSlavery.com











3 thoughts on “Lessons we learned from Understanding Slavery

  1. All of Africa (and other parts of the world) were robbed of their populations by slavery, and the descendants of enslaved peoples are found on all continents, with the exception of Antarctica. So the study of West Africa and its cultures only gives the wrong impression.


  2. Anna I really enjoyed reading your blog and feel like I learnt a lot from it, so firstly I’d like to thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. If I may, I’d like to comment on some of the points you raised (mainly to agree with them but also to offer my perspective from the point of view of my former career as a school teacher).

    Therefore, as a teacher, I must say that I completely agree with your point about connecting with the past through looking at the stories of individuals and smaller groups of people rather than talking about the masses. I think you are right, children find numbers like ‘hundreds’ and ‘millions’ hard to connect with as they are too vast and too vague for their minds to absorb what that actually means/looks like, but more tangible stories offer the opportunity to make deeper connections. At a recent conference I attended the keynote speaker said that museums allow us to connect as humans through our stories- it’s our experiences that bond us together and I think by focusing on the smaller populations and their experiences we can foster a deeper understanding that sometimes I feel the curriculum often lacks. (I personally felt that some topic work in schools was too generalised and focuses on a broader, surface understanding of the main over-arching points rather than a deeper connection with the subject matter- I think your suggestion offers a solution to this).

    I also think as adults we are too scared of children being upset by something. But this is a normal reaction! And it’s good! It means that they understand right from wrong and they understand why slavery and the brutality that went with it is unacceptable to us now. I am by no means suggesting that we set out to distress any young minds, but for children to respond to subject matter of this nature in an uncomfortable manner is normal. It shows normal development and an appropriate emotional response, and in a supportive a envirnoment. By allowing children to explore their emotions and formulate personal reactions to such content in a safe environment, with caring and responsible adults, we are allowing them the opportunity to explore adult emotions in a safe environment where they are protected. I think your comment about being prepared for children to not want to touch or handle even replica objects is very poignant. I had the pleasure to teach year 5 and 6 children for a few years and while their maturity level meant that they could access some of this content with adult supervision, there were still a few children who (for whatever reason) were a little more sentitive than others and could not find it in themselves to fully partake in such activities. (I should possibly say at this point that our topic was Uganda where we had a partner school and we were talking about child soldiers, along with other issues like education and poverty). Even one of our most robust and solid children stepped back at one point, (she later used the lesson and what she had learnt as a catalyst to prepare and run her own charity bake sale to raise money for the school), but that safe exploration of subject matter was crucial to their development as young (and informed) adults. It fostered really thoughtful discussion in the lesson afterwards and the children formed opinions and views which were personal responses and well articulated so I completely agree with many of the points you raised based on my experience of teaching challenging subject matter to yr5/6 students.

    The other comment I wanted to make was more of an observation and that is with regard to your point about language. I agree with your point but have to say that I think language is sometimes not given the care and attention that it should- particularly when taking about the identities of populations of people. I think ‘African’ has become a generalised label and being more specific about where people come from is an important part of their story and who they are. You suggest ‘men, women and children’ and this is more easily relatable than ‘Africans’ because on a very basic level most children have not been to Africa! Also I think you are completely right about the differ the betweenness ‘enslaved’ and ‘slave’ and the difference in these words sets the scene and adds some context. The difference in the wording has big implications and there is a different meaning to the word which needs to be acknowledged. I have come across some very carelessly worded texts (though I’m pleased to say not from museums but publishers/textbooks instead). On the point of language I feel there is a tendency to dumb-it-down for children sometimes and, particularly as children get older, I think we can afford to be a bit more open and honest with the words we use. I also worry how much being ‘politically correct’ or worried about offending people restricts what we might otherwise want to say. We should not be scared to say what we want to say in order to convey accurately historical facts.

    I ackowledge my comments relate to children of a certain age group (I am a key stage 2 specialist) so I found your comments about how to engage younger children with this insightful (and I would completely agree by-the-way that these activities are a good ‘way in’ for younger minds). I know that a lot of Monday nights #museumhour discussion was around family learning but I guess we also have to remember that every child is individual and some children can engage with subject matter that maybe others are not ready to or can’t grasp. I guess with family events parents are there to act as a guide and facilitator. I also ackowledge that my comments are very much informed by a formal education setting. I haven’t yet encountered such interesting subject matter since I transferred to heritage education but look forward to the challenge.


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