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











Space Invaders: museum women leaders conference

Keynote speaker Nirmal Puwar tells it like it is

Glass ceilings, glass pyramids, glass elevators, sticky floors and the greatest human rights abuse on the planet.

Friday 18 March 2016

After (ironically) sorting out the emergency childcare and pack lunches it was off to the IWM for what promised to be an exciting conference. Space Invaders explored issues around (the lack of) women leaders in the museum sector and aimed to ‘kick start public debate about gender inequality in museum leadership’.

As soon as I arrived it felt different from other conferences. Aside from two men, the room was full of women. The atmosphere felt warmer, more friendly and – dare I say it? – more inclusive than usual. The tone was a little more informal, conversational – but certainly no less rigorous for it. It felt a bit like I knew everyone in the room (actually, I did know quite a lot of them but that’s not the point!).

Among many highlights…

Keynote speaker Nirmal Puwar showed us ‘women tend to be judged on experience, whereas men are judged on potential’. They are not seen to ‘naturally hold leadership skills – they are under hyper-surveillance’.

Nicola Lacey reminded us that work/life balance is more of a limiting factor for women than men, and of the importance of role models and mentors.

Mark Carnall asked ‘where are all the men? (In the boardroom?!)

Emma Green brought home the importance of being active – inclusion, not just ‘equality and diversity’. And intersectionality – the untangle-able mix of gender, culture, class, sexuality, age…

The conference raised questions…

  • Are we stepping back or being pushed back – are women just too sensible to take on the hell and the hassle of the top jobs?
  • Should job applications be anonymous?
  • How are women represented in museum collections?
  • Should all government funded museums set targets to diversify their boards?

And answers…

  • Solidarity
  • Intersectionality
  • Inclusion
  • Find and use your networks
  • Look outside the sector
  • Gather and use data
  • Use, become and be mentors

And should all government funded museums set targets to diversify their boards? 90% said YES!

A great and important conference all round. I hope it will lead to action.

I left with renewed vigour for my own personal museum crusade – to get more women into displays. Often hidden in our collections, we must dig deep to find their voices, the traces of their lives and work they left behind. Interpret them. Make the invisible visible. Make them shine.

And to smash the patriarchy – of course.