Lines of resistance: evoking and configuring the theme of resistance in museum displays in Britain around the bicentenary of 1807

Geoffrey Cubitt


On the basis of an extensive survey of museum displays and exhibitions dealing with slavery and abolition, put on at the time of the 2007 Bicentenary of the Act of Abolition, this article explores, and suggests ways of analysing, the ways in which museums in Britain presented, evoked and interpreted the theme of resistance or rebellion by the enslaved. By recognising the importance of resistance, museums aimed to affirm the agency of the enslaved and to counterbalance the celebratory tendencies of abolitionist historiography; they were also, in some cases, seeking to position themselves less as authoritative purveyors of knowledge than as arenas for the articulation of competing narratives and the negotiation of social and cultural identities. Yet museums’ efforts to foreground the theme of resistance were often limited in character: the importance of the theme was announced, but treatments of it were brief and schematic, dependent on a limited range of materials, and not always convincingly woven into the larger narratives of the exhibition. The article explores some of the reasons for this, before analysing in more detail the presentational strategies of a number of exhibitions which did develop a larger or more complex handling of the theme of resistance. Here the analysis uses a distinction between ‘gestural’ and ‘expository’ presentational emphases to map similarities and differences between these displays, and in particular between the strategies two new and major permanent exhibits opened in 2007: the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool and the re-designed Wilberforce House Museum in Hull.

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Copyright (c) 2015 Geoffrey Cubitt

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360