In many parts of the world, museums are considering how to present history through different lenses, rather than just representing colonial and imperialistic views of certain events, countries or whole continents.
The current museum presentations of exhibits and information about slavery – especially the transatlantic slave trade – are a stark example of colonisation that’s been spun through a white, eurocentric lens. Hence, it’s become a key part of the decolonisation debate.
Museums all over the world have struggled to move beyond presenting more than emotionally removed snapshots of the slave trade. Most of these halls are continuing a long tradition of disconnecting themselves and the public from personal and local stories of slavery. This makes them disconnected from community and public memories.
African museums are also guilty of this practice. The transatlantic slave trade was a 400-year period during which African people were stolen from their homes and shipped to colonial nations. It was complex and multi-faceted. But when presented by museums today, it is communicated as a singular and temporarily isolated event. African museums frame the transatlantic slave trade narratives from an economic perspective. Their narratives are built around economic drivers and the economic effects of slavery on African countries, and the countries that benefited from the trade.
In a recent study, I examined how slavery is presented in two Nigerian museums. One is Calabar’s Slave History Museum, which is government-funded; the other is the privately run Seriki Faremi Williams Abass Museum. In both museums, the dominant narrative about slavery is that the Europeans arrived; the slave trade developed; and then it was abolished.
Little attention is paid to the practice of slavery in the region before Europeans arrived in the 1440s. There’s little mention of how the practice persisted, even after the British outlawed the slave trade in its empire. There’s no mention of concerns about modern slavery in Nigeria.
This is an isolationist approach to a large, complex set of stories. When I spoke with local communities descended from victims of slavery, members strongly criticised government funded museums’ approach. They kicked against the museums’ failure to convey the complete, complex, and conflicting localised human story of the slave trade. They also wanted museums to reflect that slavery continues to have an impact on local communities today. Especially on the culture and identity of individuals and ethnic groups.