Major new exhibition explores Devon’s links to the transatlantic slave trade

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry
Artist Joy Gregory at RAMM © Royal Albert Memorial Museum

We are so fortunate here in Devon to have the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) in the heart of Exeter. Housed in an iconic Victorian Gothic Revival Building, the world-class museum has over a million objects in its collection. Today, it aims to be an inclusive space where people from all communities and backgrounds are welcome.

However, given its Victorian origins, the museum has had donors and patrons in its earlier history with links to individuals and organisations involved in the trafficking of slaves. RAMM’s new exhibition explores both the museum’s and Devon’s links with the transatlantic slave trade.

Aspects of this abhorrent industry are all around us, often ‘hidden in plain sight’. Using RAMM’s collections, contemporary sources, and the expertise of many contributors, the exhibition In Plain Sight: Transatlantic Slavery and Devon aims to shed light on this hidden history, revealing the chilling extent of the region’s connections to the buying and selling of human beings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the ubiquity of slavery, and the vast industry it supported.

The museum has worked with people from local diverse communities to create the exhibition and to plan associated events. Alongside the advisory panel, contributors include community researchers, academics and students. By working with these different groups, RAMM hopes to ensure that a range of voices are heard. Julien Parsons, RAMM’s Senior Collections Manager, said: “In this instance, the curators don’t know all of the answers, and frequently we were asking the wrong questions.”

Cllr Amal Ghusain, Exeter City Council’s lead for communities and culture, said: “In Plain Sight will allow people to explore the topic of local links to the transatlantic slave trade in a safe and respectful environment. RAMM strives to be open and honest about past injustices. We hope that visitors to the exhibition will feel empowered to have important conversations about the history all around us.”

Alongside the exhibition, the museum has commissioned a new artwork from acclaimed British artist, Joy Gregory. Joy is the recipient of numerous awards including an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. Both the Victoria & Albert Museum and the British Council, amongst other prestigious institutions, hold works by Joy Gregory in their collections. Her practice is concerned with difficult social and political issues, with particular reference to history, race, gender, and cultural differences in contemporary society.

For the RAMM commission, Joy has created both a textile artwork and a film. She says: “It’s my job as an artist to create curiosity and bring histories together to dig deeper, not just about the wealth, but also about the industry behind that wealth. I am making things of beauty to talk about ugliness, so people can relate to this story, instead of thinking that it doesn’t relate to them and walking away.”

The wealth and influence of the pro-slavery lobby enabled its supporters to exert pressure on Parliament. Anti-slavery campaigners faced vicious and well-funded opposition. Justice finally won through; the sale and purchase of human beings was declared illegal in Britain in 1807. Thomas Clarkson, one of the leading abolitionists, wrote: “Thus ended a contest, not of brutal violence, but of reason. A contest between those who felt deeply for the happiness and the honour of their fellow-creatures, and those who, through vicious custom and the impulse of avarice, had trampled underfoot the sacred rights of their nature.”

Slavery remains one of the darkest chapters in our history, and this important exhibition exposes the depths to which individuals can sink when fuelled by greed. The equivalent of millions of pounds changed hands as men, women, and children were bought and sold. Yet, the exhibition also reinforces our belief in human progress: what was once officially sanctioned in Western society is now recognised as abhorrent. The powerful stories of individuals overcoming unimaginable difficulties testify to the resilience, dignity, and beauty of the human spirit.

In Plain Sight: Transatlantic Slavery and Devon
An Exhibition revealing the extent of the region’s connections to the slave trade, 29th January – 29th May.
Royal Albert Memorial Museum
and Art Gallery, Exeter

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