Monday, April 16, 2007

Hidden Histories, Amazing Grace

From the Hull exhibition, work done in collaboration
with local school children and an African artist

I spent this weekend touring three museums with a link to the abolition of the slave trade, alongside the African Women's Forum who I have been working with on both a professional and vountary basis on their project to celebrate the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade.

The Cowper and Newton Museum is based in Orchard House, previously the home of William Cowper, the poet, which was found for him by his friend John Newton. Newton was a merchant sailor in his youth and was involved in several slaving voyages to West Africa before his religious conversion and subsequent involvement in the campaign to abolish the slave trade. Cowper and Newton were prolific hymn writers, and their most famous work is Amazing Grace. The staff were extremely friendly, the house a labyrinth of rooms with a real diversityof collections and the gardens were beautiful and full of very friendly bees.

I am not what I ought to be,
I am not what I want to be,
I am not what I hope to be,
But by the Grace of God
I am not what I was.

John Newton

At the Wisbech and Fenland Museum we were treated to another guided tour and a recently opened, HLF funded exhibition on Thomas Clarkson, containing the chest of artefacts used by Clarkson on some 35,000 miles of touring around the country, to persuade the public of the evils of the slave trade. Clarkson was one of the leading British abolitionists and he devoted his life to collating evidence and support that would end the slave trade, providing Wilberforce with much of the evidence for his Parliamentary campaign, and mustering support for it all round the country. This exhibition will be touring later in the year, so definitely one to watch for if it comes to your area.

That night, exhausted, Kate and I skipped the group visit to a restaurant, planning to get snacks in the bar, however, two bottle if pinot grigio later, and we felt awake enough to stay up chatting to some of the other guests until about 2am, including a very large group of Dutchman who attempted to educate us on the ways of their language (and failed - I can hardly speak English after 2 bottles of wine, let alone Dutch......).

The highlight of the weekend for me was definitely Sunday's visit to Hull and Wilberforce House. There are two exhibitions on slavery and the slave trade I would recommend you see this year: one of them is Chasing Freedom, the superbly written and researched story of the Navy's role in the slave trade and its abolition, and the Hull exhibition at Wilberforce House.

Funded on a £1.3 million HLF grant, this exhibition illustrates more powerfully than any I've seen the varying ways in which culture educates, informs and entertains. This is probably the only exhibition in the country that has attempted to tell the whole story of the slave trade, from the origins of slavery itself, through the Transatlantic Trade up until the continuing role of slavery in today's society. It also achieves a perfect balance, I felt, in its representation of the abolition campaign as a movement of people, not of single figures, and it dedicates more space to the role and impact of African resistance and rebellion against the trade, than it does to the abolitionist campaign, which is entirely historically appropriate.

The Museum has used its funding to present this story utilising as many mediums as possible, inlcuding many interactive displays that are partially electronic, and including books, art, and audio visual material. The design is stunning, contemporary and artistic.

I'll be writing more about it in tomorrow's post.

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