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Slave trade history laid bare in exhibition

EXHIBITION WITH A DIFFERENCE: The Past is Now exhibition is part of The Change Maker programme

THE HIDDEN links between revered historical figures in Birmingham and the slave trade are being laid bare by an exhibition currently open in Britain’s ‘second city’.

The Past is Now – Birmingham and the British Empire, showing at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMAG) until March 12, challenges the narrative traditionally used to present recent British history.

The exhibition covers previously avoided topics such as Joseph Chamberlain’s role as Colonial Secretary in expanding British rule in South Africa and Birmingham’s position as one of the manufacturing centres of the British Empire, with many of the objects created being traded for goods and enslaved and/or colonised people.


The exhibition is the fruit of a collaboration between Birmingham Museums Trust and a diverse collective of local activists that sourced the content – graphic designer Abeera Kamran; ‘artivist’ Aliyah Hasinah; writer Mariam Khan; textile designer Shaheen Kasmani; writer/researcher Sumaya Kassim and cultural activist Sara Myers.

Myers’ reputation was crystalised by her brave actions in successfully calling for the closure of the controversial Exhibit B gallery at the Barbican in London in 2014.

Inspired by 19th and early 20th century ‘human zoos’ in Europe and America, the collection featured black actors chained up and put on display.

Created by white South African Brett Bailey, the work has already toured Europe, but created controversy for its ‘objectification’ of black people.

Myers opposition fused petitioning, direct engagement and social media - and was sparked by a promotional image of a black woman chained to the bed and about to be raped.

Myers told The Voice: "It is a pleasure ure to be a part of an exhibition like this that explores the truth about Birmingham’s relationship with colonial England, from the enslavement of African people that can be traced right up to modern times.

“There has never been anything like this done in Birmingham, with six co- curators from Black and Asian heritage, looking through the archives to find truly shocking stories about the likes of Joseph Chamberlain and the Cadbury family.

“There are memorials to figures like this all over Birmingham, yet they had destructive impacts on Africa and Asian people.” The Past Is Now, is the first in series of prototype exhibitions in the ‘Story Lab’ gallery at BMAG, as its owner, Birmingham Museums Trust, continues to work directly with the city’s diverse individuals, communities and activists to help define innovative new ways of understanding Birmingham’s collection of museum objects.

The ‘Story Lab’ gallery is an Arts Council England-funded project and part of the Change Makers Programme, which is aimed at increasing the diversity of senior leaders within England’s arts and cultural sector.

Sara Wajid, Head of Interpretation at Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “Story Lab is a space that will test dif- ferent storylines and ways of creating museum displays. We encourage visitors to interact, feed back and engage in conversations with us and each other.

“Story Lab builds on a powerful movement to democratise knowledge production within museums. The Past is Now could only happen in Birmingham, where we have the perfect cocktail of talented cultural activists, progressive curators and knockout collections.

“The editorial take on exhibitions was stuck in the colonial model, which even the better-known galleries have not shown they have reckoned with history. If they have reflected it accurately they’ve been seen as preachy and have divided opinion.

“As soon as I came to Birmingham, I felt it was the right place to implement the project here – Birmingham Museum had a multi-cultural workforce for a start.

“There is a determination to create content to encourage attendance at galleries and reflect the diversity of the cities they are in to tell the stories of diverse communities accurately.

“We have seen visitors’ attitudes change as they read the text (that accompanies the exhibition pieces). The Past is Now isn’t a regular gallery because it is honest – the displays in most mainstream museums aren’t.

Museums are traditionally neutral or have been light on the negative aspects of the slave trade and Britain’s colonial history. “These aspects should not be avoided because until we make peace with the past, we can’t move on.

“Most people who descend from the former colonial countries feel that their stories are not being told correctly and accurately.” The Change Maker programme is looking beyond its current exhibitions and towards building a legacy, as Wajid concluded: “It is important that this is part of ongoing progression, that what we’re doing becomes part of museums’ core offer.

“This is why we looked to cultural activists, like Sara Myers – who had a history of questioning the legacy that the slave trade has left. These co-curators helped us break through the politeness. No one visiting should feel as though they are going into a test gallery. This needs to encourage lasting change to the way museums reflect colonial history.”

Once the exhibition ends, prototype exhibitions will continue in the generous amount of space dedicated to The Past is Now throughout 2018.

Visitors are encouraged to share their thoughts and feedback.

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