Rebecca Nelson

Legacies on Display: Antislavery in Museums

The ‘Fight for Freedom and Equality Wall’ at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.  The permanent ‘Legacies’ gallery at the museum aims to show visitors that antislavery movements are not restricted to the nineteenth century. The above exhibit is a great example of how textual interpretation can be combined with historic collections and other media, including film, to encourage visitor engagement with past and present issues inside the museum. © Lee Garland. Reproduced with permission of the International Slavery Museum.
The ‘Fight for Freedom and Equality Wall’ at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.
The permanent ‘Legacies’ gallery at the museum aims to show visitors that antislavery movements are not restricted to the nineteenth century. The above exhibit is a great example of how textual interpretation can be combined with historic collections and other media, including film, to encourage visitor engagement with past and present issues inside the museum.
© Lee Garland. Reproduced with permission of the International Slavery Museum.

Rebecca’s research focusses on the ways museums engage with antislavery, as a contemporary social issue, using their historic collections. Historically museums have taken antislavery as an issue of the past, tied to heroic narratives of white abolitionists like William Wilberforce. During the 1980s, the emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism in politics meant that museums redeveloped these displays following a ‘bottom up’ approach, putting black agency at the centre of discussions. Most recently, since the bicentenary of the Abolition Act in 2007, museums have started to think about legacies of antislavery which still exist in today’s society, including racism, and human trafficking.

Rebecca aims to explore this latest trend in museum practice in order to understand how effective existing museum techniques are in engaging visitors with modern antislavery. Museums which already house displays on antislavery legacies will form the main focus of this investigation. These include the International Slavery Museum (Liverpool), Wilberforce House (Hull), and the Museum of London: Docklands. Rebecca will also be working with antislavery organisations across the UK in an effort to ensure displays on contemporary antislavery are a joint effort, ensuring relevance and accuracy.

Rebecca’s work is funded through the AHRC ‘Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past’ initiative, and forms part of a collaborative project entitled ‘The Antislavery Usable Past.’ Working with the universities of Hull and Nottingham, and Queen’s University Belfast, this project aims to illustrate how applied knowledge of the history of antislavery can provide opportunities to ‘care for the future’, by offering today’s campaigners a usable past.

The Role of the Museum in Twenty First- Century Society

A significant consequence of investigating the legacies of, and contemporary issues associated with, antislavery within museums is the constant, simultaneous consideration of the role of the museum in twenty-first century society. Museums today are currently experiencing an identity crisis. Funding cuts and changing government priorities have pushed museums away from their traditional educative role. Thus they are increasingly becoming spaces for community engagement and conversation. Social value is now the main measure of their effectiveness. The assessment of this value is problematic, however, and academics across many disciplines, including social policy, museology and culture studies, are currently debating this. As well as academic thought there is also a need to understand the view of museum sector professionals. The research Rebecca is undertaking will attempt to pull together academic theories, professional opinions and public reflections via a series of interviews, surveys and exhibition observations, in order to draw some conclusions about the role of the museum in the twenty-first century. Using antislavery as an in-depth case study, the aim of this research will be to produce a toolkit for use within museums across the UK. This will offer assistance to staff and volunteers when attempting to engage visitors with displays on any number of contemporary social issues.

To understand, cope with and tackle problems in today’s world, it is crucial that society has a good understanding of the past— where better than a museum to facilitate the appreciation of both past and present, providing visitors with opportunities to compare, contrast and make their own judgements?

Biography

In 2014 Rebecca completed a BA Hons degree in History from the University of York, and went on to study an MA in Museum Studies at Newcastle University. Her MA dissertation explored hidden histories in museums by looking at the lack of British imperial narratives in English city museums. This was a practise based piece of research which focussed on collection and documentation procedures. Similar themes will be explored during Rebecca’s PhD research, including how museums tackle difficult histories, the ways in which many different voices can be incorporated into one display, and how social history collections can contribute to the understanding of contemporary issues.

Rebecca has also worked in a number of heritage institutions including the Royal Collection, the National Trust, and Beamish Open Air Museum, County Durham. She has undertaken a broad variety of roles— including visitor services, education and conservation— and she hopes to use these experiences to ensure her work is relevant for, and has a broad application to, the wider heritage sector.

Supervisors

Professor John Oldfield and Dr Nick Evans, both University of Hull.

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