» New Approaches in Interpreting and representing Slavery in Museums and Sites
29.03.2018 - Social and Human Sciences Sector

New Approaches in Interpreting and representing Slavery in Museums and Sites

© Shutterstock.com / Lewis Tse Pui Lung - National Museum of African American History and Culture

An international Seminar was organized by UNESCO's "Slave Route Project: Resistance, Liberty, Heritage", in close collaboration with the University of Virginia, the US National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites(US/ICOMOS), Thomas Jefferson Foundation and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), in Charlottesville, United States of America, from 19 to 22 March 2018.

Experts from a variety of fields, academic scholars, researchers, representatives of the government and civil society from around the world shared expertise and experience with regard to the interpretation of slavery in museums and memorial sites.

During the plenary sessions, participants were requested to answer specific questions regarding approaches, methodologies and tools that would be best suited to inform the public about this tragedy and its many consequences. They made concrete proposals on the development of a guide for professionals dealing with these sensitive issues in museums and other public spaces. The UNESCO’s "Slave Route Project" will set up an international working group to develop, based on the seminar's recommendations, a new handbook that will complete the guide for memory site managers, which is in the process of being published.

A special session was held on 20 March to discuss the implications of some of the most prestigious American universities in the horrors of the slave trade. Some of these institutions are part of the Consortium of Universities Studying Slavery, which includes more than 38 universities. The consortium has already begun a process of introspection to assess their level of involvement and to reflect on measures to redress these injustices.

On 22 March, participants were given a guided tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). This museum was inaugurated in 2016 in Washington DC, after a century of struggle, and addresses African-American history and culture through four major themes: slavery, segregation, culture and sport. According to Ali Moussa Iye, Head of the Slave Route Project, NMAAHC is a remarkable example of a museum institution using the latest technologies to illustrate the complexity of the history of slavery and honoring the significant contributions of the African diaspora to the world.

The American Actor, director, and producer, Forest Whitaker sent a message to all conference participants. He talked about the attacks carried out by white supremacists in Charlottesville: “[…] it reminds us that the legacies of slavery, particularly racial prejudices, still need to be addressed […] the conflicting interpretations of theses legacies [slavery legacies] continuing to fill misunderstandings, hatred and violence”.  In response to such events, he has emphasized the importance of the topics discussed during the seminar: "When the tragedy of slavery is properly commemorated, interpreted, represented, the tragedy of slavery can [...] help us to look through and work through reconciliation, mutual respect, and forgiveness”.

In his speech, Forest Whitaker also highlighted the importance of UNESCO's initiatives such as "The Slave Route" in recognizing the social and psychological consequences of this tragedy in contemporary societies.

The international Seminar was organized in the context of the “International Decade of Persons of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024)”, the “International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21 March 2018)”, the “International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (25 March 2018)”, and the 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Contact: Ali Moussa iye, a.moussa-iye(at)unesco.org

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