Exeter City Council’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) has announced a major new exhibition exploring the museum and Devon’s links with the Transatlantic Slave Trade in early 2022.
In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery and Devon will investigate aspects of Devon and Exeter’s relationship with the Transatlantic Slave Trade that are all around us, but for some remain ‘hidden in plain sight’. Using RAMM’s collections and the expertise of many contributors, it aims to shed light on this hidden history.
The exhibition is the result of research that began in 2018, to reveal more about the region’s history and connections to the transatlantic slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Given its Victorian origins, the museum has had donors and patrons who have documented links with individuals, organisations and families who profited from trafficking enslaved people, as well as collections that contain evidence of the trade and its reach into Devon. Originally planned for 2020, the Covid-19 emergency and lockdown forced the exhibition’s postponement.
Using the museum’s collections and contemporary sources, In Plain Sighttraces the local industries that relied on the trade and the lives of the people who benefitted from its profits. It also features a newly commissioned film which reflects on RAMM’s iconic painting ‘Portrait of an African’. The subject of the portrait has been debated extensively; the individual pictured had been identified variously as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano or composer, actor and writer Ignatius Sancho, but more recently questions have been raised about the veracity of these identifications.
The museum has worked with people from local diverse communities to create the exhibition and to plan associated events. This includes an advisory panel, community researchers, academics and students. Julien Parsons, RAMM’s lead on collections and content, said, ‘In this instance the curators do not know all of the answers, and frequently we were asking the wrong questions.’ By working with these different groups, RAMM hopes to ensure that a range of voices are heard.
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. As an organisation RAMM strives to be open and honest about past injustices. RAMM is an inclusive space where people from all communities and backgrounds are welcome to discuss ideas, and we hope that visitors to the exhibition will feel empowered to have important conversations about the history all around us.’
Alongside the exhibition, Joy Gregory has been commissioned by the museum to respond to In Plain Sight in a new artwork. Gregory is an acclaimed contemporary British artist whose work is concerned with difficult social and political issues. She has worked with textiles and embroidery for this commission, and has also created a film piece. She said:
‘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.’
In Plain Sight: Transatlantic slavery and Devon opens 29 Jan 2022, to 29 May 2022. More details can be found at rammuseum.org.uk