Reflection on History, Memory, and Commemoration

Elise Beeley, Bath Spa University

My project in England was based on researching the M-Shed Museum in Bristol, and how well it works as a site of memory for those looking to explore the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and its impact. M-Shed is a museum in Bristol, located on the Harbourside where the slave trading ships would have docked, which explores the history of the city and all its residences. It is not a specifically slave-focused museum, however, it is one of the few sites in Bristol which actually addresses the existence of the trade at all. Though the detail and amount of space it dedicates to this is much less than would be assumed based on the multiple references to it from the website and other tourist guides.

Upon arriving in Canada it became immediately clear to me that the M-Shed slave trade exhibition was vastly lacking in something that is at the heart of Ontario-Canadian sites of memory; personal narratives. Whilst Canadian sites of memory such as the ones as the Black Mecca Museum in Chatham as well as the site in Buxton, explore the stories and experiences of individual fugitive slaves and black Canadians once they arrived in Canada the M-Shed is much more clinical in tone. Discussing the events that happened in a much more distant and less emotive manner. Lessening the emotional resonance of the exhibition in Bristol by not giving the trade ‘a face’ and reducing therefore the empathy a visitor can make with the history being presented.

There is also an attempt at some of the Canadian sites of memory to discuss the aspects of black history that extend beyond just the slave trade, discussing some individuals attempts to integrate into Canadian society and the achievements of some notable individuals. At M-Shed the history of black Bristolians seems to not be explored beyond this aspect of their heritage. Bristol activist Ros Martin observed when the phantoms from Canada first visited M-shed that little space is dedicated to the contributions of black individuals to Bristol’s history as a city beyond those involved in the slave trade. In Canada, sites such as the Amherstburg Freedom Museum dedicate whole sections of their museums to celebrating these side of black heritage.

However, there were also similarities in the way the history of the transatlantic slave trade was represented both in Canada and Britain. Sites of memory in both locations tended to focus on the positive aspects of their countries association with the trade; in Canada the focus was on the country as a refuge and in Britain as an abolisher of the trade. It was not until we visited Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, Dresden, on Wednesday that we heard our first open mention that Canada was not welcoming to the fugitive slaves that crossed the border from the United States. There was also almost no mention of the existence of slavery in Canada before the abolition in 1834. It would perhaps be beneficial for sites to include more of acknowledgement of this aspect of Canada’s history as it allows the personal or vernacular histories already explored at the sites to fit into the grander national narrative in turn giving visitors to the site greater understanding of these stories significance.

However, over the course of the week the scale this grand narrative became clear over the course of the week that the sites of memory in Canada were much of more integrated with each other than I first realised. Often those who worked at the site of memory also had a personal or ancestral connection to the narrative being presented thus there was a greater sense of pride too at these sites This is particularly significant to M-Shed which as I already mentioned discusses the history of its black citizens in a very distance and limited way, yet it claims wants to present a collective identity of Bristol which is representative of all. Despite appearing to have much more funding than the grass-root style sites of memory in Canada there is clearly much more passion present at the sites, perhaps because of this fight that many working at the sites of memory have experienced in trying to get this element of Canadian history recognised.  Perhaps this is something M-Shed and British sites of memory could learn from Canada’s representation of the history of the Slave Trade.

The differences in forms of commemoration had never been more clear to me than during the week in Canada.  We were able to compare side-by-the side events that were so similar, and yet the experience of remembering them so notably different.  Differences in commemoration reflected the variations in what a society or group values from the history they portray.

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