Sunday, October 26, 2008


Decided to spend my Saturday around Canary Wharf yesterday (photos here). Usually, I'm pretty good at finding my way, but somehow I read the map upside down and ended up wandering around quite a bit before ending up at my intended destination, the London Museum in Docklands. I had my camera, so hopefully my wandering looked intentional to passersby.

If you only judged by the photos I've taken in my four trips to London, you'd think all of London lived quay-side, Thames-side or canal-side. I'm not sure how I always end up walking next to the water, or more precisely, how it is that I only have my camera with me when I'm walking next to water.

Anyway, I haven't been to Canary Wharf since 1997, we took a quick look-see at it with my Victorian Society Summer School, to check out the rebuilding after the bomb. It was then that I decided that I wanted to write my dissertation about bombs and buildings--too bad that was vetoed by my then adviser, as I would have been going on the job market some 4-5 years later, just in time.

The Museum in Docklands is quite nice. There's a special exhibit up on Jack the Ripper, which I didn't see. It was super crowded, either because this was the first Saturday of half-term break for school kids, or because it was the last Saturday of same, not sure which. I really only went there to see the London, Sugar & Slavery exhibit, anyway, so I kept my focus on that.

Well done exhibit, not nearly as brutal as I probably would have made it, but I guess that's why I'm not a curator. One thing I really liked about it was that the issue of slavery (and implicitly, empire) was brought into the present day (or at least up to 2007). What I found a little puzzling was the exhibit's starting date of 1700. There was a wall of statistics for the slave trade, listing the ships, number of enslaved Africans carried, destination, etc., but the stats all related to the last two decades of the eighteenth century. Enslaved Africans were used in the American colonies starting from 1650 or so, and I know Jamaica had rapidly growing enslaved populations in the second half of the seventeenth century.

Anyway, that's more of a side issue--the main point is that at least the museum is trying--not too long ago, it seemed as if Madge Dresser was talking into an empty void of indifference.

My favorite part of the exhibit was a bit of technology, actually. They had an interactive map that showed traces of slavery around eighteenth-century London. For instance, it had marked St. Botolph without Aldgate as a church with many African congregants, and a site of many African burials. It would be really brilliant if you could take the museum's map, and lay it over top of the maps from the Sugar Refiners and Sugarbakers database. If you could also overlay maps of trading houses for goods produced on plantations, and add to those maps locating domiciles of slave holders, or those with financial interest in slave ships, or those who produced the goods to trade for sugar, or the places where rum was bottled, you'd have an incredibly dense map, demonstrating fairly conclusively that slavery changed the geography of Thameside London as much as any seventeenth-century fire.

Speaking of fire, the only other galleries I really spent time in were the "docklands at war" rooms. They had a film clip borrowed from the Imperial War Museum, showing the inferno caused by incendiary bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe--I wish it had been longer, because I was riveted by it. I regret not being able to write my dissertation on Canary Wharf. Maybe the "bombs and buildings" wasn't such a great idea, the London Museum in Docklands demonstrates that somewhere in my research, I would have found an interesting, and hopefully worthwile, topic.

1 comment:

Beth said...

I hope London, Sugar, and Slavery will still be up in early January! I stumbled across it the other day and am really glad to know what you think of it because it sounded so good. I must see it.

I also really wish I had a teleport machine because I'd love to be doing all these things with you. They sound perfect, and I know I would get more out of them with you than I would on my own. You really do have my "if I had made some different decisions" life. Though I do not envy feeling sick and being trapped in a big exhibit with forced paths. Nooooo.