The sensory experience of being at the Holburne Museum was gratifying: spring was clearly in the air, the pink banner of the Holburne’s logo was prevalent, and the pristine creamy-coloured Bath stone of the buildings on Great Pulteney Street also shone in the sun. All of these factors seemed to contribute to the importance of exposure of the city’s beauty, but the hidden narratives were present in the shadows as our Phantoms group unearthed them during our site visit. Two main reflections became prevalent to me: the performativity of memory, and the intertwining of colonial influence in temporal experiences. These moments were catalyzed for myself upon the affective experience of walking through the Holburne Museum, its grounds and garden, and along the skirts of the property on Great Pulteney Street. I was challenged, as both a visitor of the space and in the context of Phantoms’ vision of reflecting on ways of slave trade memory, to ground myself knowing I was in a centre of colonial influence, ideas, and wealth. Evidently, there were multiple times where even though I was in Bath, the voices of those whose movement across space, time, and memory brought me back to how we perform slave trade memory in North America.
Famed Bath artist Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of the Byam family hangs proudly on the wall of the Holburne’s exhibit. The Byams are seemingly pleased with their arrival to Antigua as depicted in the painting. As we learned, the painting was later updated to incorporate the couple’s young daughter and to adjust the clothing fashions – Gainsborough reworks the scene so that the family is “properly” remembered for their wealth and status. We reworked the memory of the painting so that we were conscious of their connection to the slave trade instantly when perceiving why the family possessed privilege. This portrait, even amongst the many we saw in London at the National Portrait Gallery, has stayed with me the most: the way that its presentation romanticized the 18th century white family’s journey to its plantation in conversation with Bath’s heritage made me question how fine art is subject to the visitor’s interpretation, and how this experience of the painting can catalyze the viewing of the Holburne space as interrelated with the spheres of slave trade wealth. Evidently, when these curated spaces refuse to have these conversations or invite the visitor to remember them, memory of the slave trade becomes an exercise that we must practice when its performativity is being shaped to fit within imperial frames.
What was outside of the Holburne’s grounds was just as important as what was inside: it furthered the privileging of the “clean” civic narrative of Bath, one that matches the uniformity and control over the Bath stone. I looked up and down Great Pulteney Street, which the front door of the Holburne faces, was not surprised to learn that Sir William Pulteney’s wealth was also generated from the slave trade and his respective plantations. However, as some of our colleagues noted, Pulteney himself managed to gain land in Western New York under “delegation” with Indigenous communities who were forced to cede their lands. What I once considered to be parallel themes of how colonial narratives are expressed in North America, a binary of slave trade experiences versus Indigenous colonization, was instantly switched in my mind to show how they possess clear interrelation in the context of postcolonial memory. While the “Other,” being an enslaved person from Africa or an Indigenous person, has distinct experiences of marginalization, I realized that our status as North Americans prepares us to ask broader questions about why these ideologies dominate and whose agency is being downplayed, The spatial positioning of the Holburne Museum, while chosen for aesthetic reasons, now has the perfect opportunity to literally face its history and relationship with “Great Pulteney Street,” and to aid in the deconstructing of the oppressing power associated with the “Great.” Visiting this site made it clear why we must return to colonial centres such as Bath, as this helps unearth the other imperial narratives that are phantoms themselves. It is our contemporary duty to keep this in mind as we work with sites of slave trade memory, especially in a city that seemingly refuses to acknowledge its activity of colonial violence through something as simple as an address.
We stopped outside Jane Austen’s apartment beside the Holburne. A tourist bus appropriately drove by. One of our colleagues mentioned how Austen would enjoy the beautiful gardens of the Holburne. Austen lived in Bath a few years before abolition in 1807, therefore performing her walk while being conscientious of the fact that she may have been aware of abolition discourse occurring in the city, and before that fact became reality for Austen, was truly powerful. After completing research for the broader Phantoms of the Past project, and knowing she is engaged with abolition texts that informed her writing of Mansfield Park, ending our walk through the gardens of the Holburne at Austen’s apartment helped me approach the understanding of the time period and socio-political context she was living in with the lens of slave trade memory, and effectively remember that walk conscious of the spheres of privilege. While we can accept the fact that Austen, the gardens, and the Holburne collectively depict the catered civic narrative of Bath’s beauty, it is important to recognize how Austen’s writing philosophy of Mansfield Park is impacted by the superstructures that the Holburne site operates within, and how her comments on the slave trade subvert this beauty in an effort that contributes to slave trade memory and abolition discourse.
The politics of memory impact the performance of how we can decolonize a city and its narrative. Clearly, the Holburne museum and Great Pulteney Street have extensive roots in the slave trade – visiting these spaces in the capacity that we did gives agency to the perspectives that have become phantoms. Having the voices of the enslaved in our minds was essential to interacting with the space as they do not possess portraits, gardens, or street names.