On May 9, 2013, the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justiceopened its inaugural exhibit, Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom at the Center for Public Humanities’ Carriage House Gallery. Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom tells the story of slave insurrections on three vessels including the Amistad, the Meermin, and the Sally, exploring the struggles of the enslaved to resist captivity, gain freedom, and return to their homelands.
The exhibit opening signaled a number of firsts- the first exhibit organized by the newly created Center (opened in October 2012), which is in many ways the only institution of its kind. It was one of many recommendations by the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice developed by former Brown University President Ruth Simmons.
Given the thoughtful, collaborative, and community oriented process the Steering Committee undertook, the Center takes seriously its obligation to continuing these values through meaningful conversations and engaging interdisciplinary public programming.
For our exhibit planning, this meant setting up an advisory committee comprised of individuals representing diverse disciplines including Archaeology, Africana Studies, American Studies, History, and Theatre/Performing Arts. We knew we wanted to do an exhibit that examined slave ships, and the transformations that occurred in that space- the way it changed a captured African into an enslaved person, how it altered ideas of the enslaved about community and home. We also knew we wanted to tell a story that showed the agency of the enslaved and hoped we could do this by showing examples of insurrections on three slave ships which are well documented.
We took these basic ideas and some archival images to our first advisory committee meeting. The group hashed out important tenants of our work- whose voices should be represented? How do you represent a group of people who left behind few sources? Where does the story begin? How do we represent that which is so unknowable and in many ways unthinkable? We researched other exhibits about slavery and discussed the tone we wanted to set- would it be one of shock and horror, or cool detachment?
After a series of discussions and debates, we knew we couldn’t “capture” the experience of enslavement and the Middle Passage, but we could aim to create a dramatic and informative exhibit that shared a variety of perspectives, and illustrated the global systems at play which allowed for the African slave trade to exist. We were fortunate to work with designers Erin Wells and Mark Foster- they helped to turn our discussions, archival research, and text into labels and panels, which then became thematic rooms, and finally a full, cohesive exhibit.
We were committed to collaborating with individuals across the University on this exhibit, and though the process was slower than if the Center had just done the exhibit on our own, the outcome made for a richer and more interesting exhibit. To do this we needed a small group of individuals who worked daily on the exhibit- conducting research, finding images, and writing text, while thinking about the big picture details of how the exhibit was developing. The three of us at the Center, myself, Prof. Anthony Bogues, the Center’s Director, and Elon Cook, our graduate fellow, took on this role. With each new draft of text we debated the nuances of word choices and thought carefully about what messages the images would convey. We worked closely with Erin and Mark as our content developed, and they helped put graphics to our words, helping to keep us concise. As their designs developed, it helped us to realize images or topics we might be missing. Each month we brought our content and the designers’ mock-ups to the advisory committee who, using the lens of their particular fields, provided feedback and asked critical questions, which helped to inform our work for each new round of edits. As the exhibit took on new forms, we reached out numerous others including a cartographer, a videographer, and local actors who all gave generously of their time and helped shape the exhibit.
Current MA students in the public humanities program (and even a few alums) also gave their time to transform the Carriage House space into the exhibit on display now. They brought backgrounds in previous museum work that was crucial to the success of our exhibit- from painting, to carpentry skills, and mounting labels, they were always thinking about the visitor experience. Over cans of spray mount and gallons of paint we discussed the difficulties and care necessary of representing communities historically underrepresented, if not erased, in the archive.
On opening night we were overwhelmed to see so many familiar and new faces rush into the Brown Center for the Public Humanities. The many people who had been part of a piece of the exhibit enjoyed seeing final product they had helped to create. We’ve been fortunate to have a number of groups visit our exhibit- we hope that after their visit they know just a little more about the individuals who were captured, enslaved, and fought to defend their freedom.
Guest Blogger, Shana Weinberg is the Manager of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University and co-curator of the exhibit Ships of Bondage and the Fight for Freedom.