Today was the first of the two-part tours for Andrew’s class, and for our Monday tour we visited the Museum of London Docklands on the Isle of Dogs, East London. Before going to the museum by tube, we had enough time to grab a quick lunch before meeting Andrew at the Russell Square station. Notsile and I decided to visit Burger and Shakes for some French fries, but we ended up ordering the macaroni and cheese as well (which unfortunately was not available for take away).
The museum showcased the history of slavery in the British empire, paying close attention to the beginning of the slave trade and its eventual abolition in Great Britain. When we entered the museum the first room they had was actually the gift shop, and I enjoyed reading the wrappings on the chocolates.
The displays began with the history of London in antiquity. Londinium, as London was known as in Roman times, was a busy harbor since most of the goods and people traveling through Britannia passed through the city. The first floor of displays focused on the changes occurring within and surrounding London from Roman times to the Tudor dynasty.
Moving along through history to the artistic side of the displays, the museum also chose to showcase how ethnic minorities were portrayed through history. The carved figure of Pocahontas is shown wearing a traditional headdress and skirt of tobacco leaves, which means it was very likely used as a ‘tobacconist shop figure’. However the figure also bears a similarity to contemporary ships’ figureheads at the time.
The other display that really caught my eye was the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate daughter of a naval officer and an enslaved African woman. “She was raised by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield…[but] was never treated as an equal member of the family”.
The main gallery focused on the beginning and spread of slavery from London to other parts of the world (via the Triangle Trade display), and campaigns towards the abolition of slavery in Great Britain. One of the interesting aspects of the display was that it had a section regarding the terminology used: more specifically, words such as ‘slaved’ versus ‘enslaved African’, and the removal of more offensive language whenever possible.
The displays regarding the changing feelings toward slavery were quite powerful. The floor had a projector which was played every 30 minutes or so, with the slaves told what they were not allowed to do (‘you will not speak your own language’, ‘you will have a new name’, ‘you will be beaten’, etc). The tone then became more positive, with the enslaved Africans fighting back first in English, then in their own dialects.
The display also included female campaigners alongside their male counterparts, which was interesting because at the time women were considered second-class citizens as well. The museum focused a bit less on London and its history as a port of commerce and tourism, but it did talk about how the port was affected by siege, disease, and fires.
The museum was really interesting because it contained a point of view separate from other British museums, especially ones that discussed the slave trade. The only downside was the distance from our flats, because the tube ride home was pretty insane – the carriages were full all the way home, and it was rush hour because everyone was going home from work.