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Black History Month: Specialist looks at how slavery shaped the West India Docks

PUBLISHED: 14:00 01 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:07 01 October 2018

Oil on canvas portrait of MP and slave trade advocate, George Hibbert, by Thomas Lawrence. Picture: PLA collection/Museum of London

Oil on canvas portrait of MP and slave trade advocate, George Hibbert, by Thomas Lawrence. Picture: PLA collection/Museum of London

Museum of London- PLA collection

An exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands will be exploring the connection of British culture to slavery during Black History Month.

Slavery, Culture and Collecting, curated by doctor Katie Donington, focuses on slave owner and MP George Hibbert, who helped build the West India Docks.

During her research, Katie looked at the legacy slavery left on the Docklands, and British culture as a whole.

“The exhibition looks at the way slavery was connected to cultural institutions,” she said.

“The slave trade helped fund art galleries, charities and universities. It’ll look at the way culture itself was used to create racial hierarchy.”

The exhibition uses cultural artefacts to follow the story of George Hibbert. He was an MP, book collector and co-founder of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, but also a prominent slave trade campaigner.

“It’s a local story which we hope visitors will feel connected to,” Katie said.

“When people discuss slavery it tends to be in very general terms.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to say people are totally evil or 100 per cent good. People involved in atrocities can still benefit others.”

The exhibition looks at some of George’s personal items and his family who owned a plantation in Jamaica. Katie said it was important to consider how slavery may have benefited one faction of society, while massively hurting another.

She said: “Britain benefited, but at what cost?

“While George may have helped found the RNLI, these kinds of institutions weren’t being built in the Caribbean.

“There’s a portrait of George in the National Portrait Gallery which describes him as a merchant, and that’s it. It massively silences his relation to the slave trade. The exhibition is about getting people to engage with the story of slavery and British culture. It has to be spoken about.”

Katie hopes the exhibition will encourage visitors to think about using history to create change.

She said: “If the past is different to the present, it’s important to look at why.

“There are many troubling relationships from the past, whether that be to do with race, class or gender, which continue to shape things in the modern day.

“If we understand history better, then we can also know how to make changes.”

The free exhibition is open now and runs until September 2019.

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