South London Memories: Cultural consequences of slavery are explored

A challenging new display at the Museum of London Docklands has highlighted the relationship between transatlantic slavery and the British cultural world.

The display, co-curated by Dr Katie Donington, focuses on the slave-owner and collector George Hibbert.

Hibbert was a prominent member of a large cultural and social network in 18th and early 19th century Britain which derived its wealth directly from the slave economy.

Oil on canvas portrait of George Hibbert by Thomas Lawrence.

These people were often best remembered for their philanthropic and cultural activities, rather than for their role in profiteering from and perpetuating slavery.

Hibbert was instrumental in building the West India Docks which now house the Museum of London Docklands.

This connection positions the museum as an important place to think about the relationship between slavery and cultural heritage.

Throughout his life, Hibbert, a leading pro-slavery lobbyist, accumulated numerous important paintings, and thousands of valuable books, including an extremely rare copy of the Gutenburg Bible. He was also considered an expert in botanical science.

His support of domestic charitable causes allowed him to challenge abolitionist representations of slave-owners as cruel tyrants.

Pro-slavery lobbyists like Hibbert countered the argument of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce by insisting that the reform of conditions for white working people in Britain should take priority over ending the slave trade abroad.

In supporting causes aimed at helping the working poor, men like Hibbert could demonstrate their respectability and at the same time criticise the abolitionists for their lack of interest in domestic improvement.

Slavery, Culture & Collecting highlights both the cultural consequences of Britain’s engagement with slavery, as well as the ways in which culture created ideas about race.

These are difficult legacies that British society continues to grapple with today.

Dr Danielle Thom, Curator of Making at the Museum of London, said: “The idea of ‘high’ culture has undeniably been used to construct a narrative of European racial superiority.

Individuals involved in the slave economy were able to whitewash their reputations through their support of cultural institutions.

Many of these institutions still flourish today, their success underpinned by the profits of slavery.”

Dr Katie Donington, Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, said: “Recent controversies in Britain related to the cultural afterlife of both slavery and, more broadly, colonialism, have highlighted the relationship between cultural enrichment and the violent expropriation of empire, in particular the issue of statues and monuments and their relationship to different understandings of national history and identity have provoked debate.

Museums have a vital role to play in this conversation, not least because many of their collections owe a debt to the cultural legacies of slavery.”

Slavery, Culture & Collecting Museum of London Docklands Until September 15, 2019 Free

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