Illuminating the black presence in London before 1948
Submitting InstitutionUniversity College London
Unit of AssessmentGeography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Research on the black presence in London conducted at UCL by Caroline
Bressey was incorporated into the London, Sugary and Slavery Gallery
(LSS), which opened at Museum of London Docklands (MoLD) in November 2007
and remains the only permanent gallery on slavery in a London museum.
Developing a new narrative of London's historical relationship with
enslavement, LSS has presented museums and galleries engaging with public
history with a deeper and wider context through which to present their own
historical narratives. Bressey's contribution embedded her unique
methodological approaches in black historical geography into the gallery.
In turn, LSS contributed to the creation of new discussions of London's
history and new methodologies for museum practice.
Throughout her career at UCL, Caroline Bressey (Research Fellow
2005-2008; Lecturer in Human Geography from 2008) has studied and
developed interdisciplinary methodologies for researching the black
presence in Britain which, particularly before the iconic arrival of
Jamaican migrants and former servicemen on the Empire Windrush in
1948, is under-researched. The absence of identifications of blackness in
many British archives had led to assumptions that the black population in
19th-century Britain had dramatically declined following the
end of transatlantic slavery. The histories that are known are
still largely ignored within public history and heritage institutions.
Bressey's empirical research has recovered and continues to explore the
lives of black men and women in Victorian Britain, particularly London
[a]. She has pioneered the use of archival photography to examine the
historical geographies of Victorian black London [b] and argues that
placing such images into heritage sites is key to challenging traditional
narratives of Britishness [d].
The stories made available through these images offer a unique snapshot
of the experiences of men, women, their children, and their extended
family and friends during the period c1860-1914. These people were members
of multi-ethnic communities, and their presence demonstrates that black
people formed an integrated part of London's communities during the 19th
century. Within these communities they had diverse experiences that were
both ordinary and extraordinary. For example, Bressey's work covers black
Victorians such as Caroline Maisley, a woman admitted to Colney Hatch
Asylum in 1898 [b], and Sarah Forbes Bonnetta, one of Queen Victoria's
godchildren [c]. Both women appear in the LSS gallery emphasising the
presence of black people in 19th-century Britain and the
diversity of their experiences, from paupers to kinship with Queen
Although the stories reveal very different experiences of life, they also
reveal common themes, such as the absence of a consistent understanding of
race within British institutions, that reflect changing meanings of race
across space and time. In recovering these historical geographies,
Bressey's empirical research has raised methodological questions about the
absence of `colour' in British Victorian archives. She has, in particular,
advocated the combined use of numerous archives as a more effective method
of elucidating the lives and histories of black Victorians, and argued
that the use of written sources alone has often obscured the diversity of
both the available archival evidence and the stories that it tells [d, e].
Black women admitted to Victorian asylums, for example, often had no
record of `ethnicity' or the colour of their skin; as such, it is only
through the use of additional sources such as asylum photographic albums
that race can be `seen', as illustrated by the case of Caroline Maisley
More generally, these findings demonstrate that multi-cultural London has
a far longer history than has been imagined. Embedding this narrative into
LSS was a key part of the gallery's aim, allowing those engaging with
heritage sites to position themselves in the present within a far wider
and deeper context of London's history [d].
References to the research
[a] Bressey C. (2009) The legacies of 2007: remapping the black presence
in Britain. Geography Compass 3:3, 903-917. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-8198.2009.00218.x
(peer-reviewed survey article)
• Paper and accompanying teaching resources explore how fractures
highlighted by the 1807/2007 bicentenary might be developed by geographers
and students interested in the making of Britishness.
[b] Bressey, C. (2006) Invisible presence: the whitening of the black
community in the historical imagination of British archives. Archivaria
61, 47-61. http://bit.ly/16dS66p.
(leading journal in Library and Information Science, recently ranked A+ by
the Australian Research Council)
• Investigates tensions between the presence of black people in London,
their material absences in archives and the complexities of British
histories that this tension articulates.
[c] Bressey, C. (2005) Of Africa's brightest ornaments: A short biography
of Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Social and Cultural Geography 6:2,
253-266. doi: 10.1080/14649360500074675.
(ISI Journal Impact Factor (JIF): 1.764; ranking in 2012 SSCI: 16/72
• Biography of an African woman who though a protégée of Queen Victoria
was vulnerable to racialisation and prejudice.
[d] Bressey, C. (2012) Seeing colour in black and white: the role of the
visual in diversifying historical narratives at sites of English heritage,
Critical Social Policy 32:1, 87-105. doi: 10.1177/0261018311425200.
(JIF: 1.616; ranking: 15/39 in Social Issues, 22/92 in Social Sciences,
• Discusses the importance of visual methodologies in developing a more
inclusive approach to heritage in British museums and galleries.
• Interrogates British history and our understanding of the Black
Atlantic through the biographies of three young black women revealed
through photographic and written archives.
Research Quality: Bressey's UCL research on the Black Presence in
Victorian London was funded by an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship (2002-2003:
£28,201) and then an ESRC Research Fellowship [2005-2008: RES-000-27-0153
- £117,534]. Bressey was subsequently PI on an AHRC grant, "Drawing Over
the Colour Line" (2012-2013: AH/I027371/1, £199,235). In 2009, she was
awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize for Geography (£70,000).
Details of the impact
The research described above played an important role in the
establishment and curation of the Museum of London Docklands' London,
Sugar and Slavery gallery. LSS is a key component of MoLD, the world's
largest urban history museum, attracting, on average, 100,000-180,000
visitors per annum in 2008 to 2011 . As its external academic curator,
Bressey has played a key role in the development of the gallery since it
was first proposed to commemorate the bicentenary in 2007 of the abolition
of the British transatlantic slave trade. The only permanent gallery on
slavery in a London museum, its impact has continued throughout the REF
One of MoLD's objectives in setting up the gallery was to develop an
innovative strategy of engagement with communities, including
Afro-Caribbeans, who feared the bicentenary would be 'whitewashed' into a
celebration of the abolitionist movement rather than exploring the
experience of black people in London. Bressey took particular
responsibility for the gallery's `Legacy Section', which draws heavily on
her work on Black Victorians [b, c]. Her research on the continuous black
presence in London, including on using visual materials to develop diverse
narratives [d], was instrumental in creating a space in which a continuous
history to the present day could be explored, thus enabling the museum to
fulfil its goal of developing a historical narrative in partnership with
the communities most closely involved . By utilising Bressey's
research, the museum was able to convey a more complex story about the
history of slavery than the usual narrative of victimhood and rescue, and
to create the gallery as a co-production with local communities , with
space for a continued public participation in the histories displayed.
The gallery launched with a two-day open event in November 2007 with over
3,000 people in attendance; for many, the launch represented their first
visit to the museum . As such, the opening of LSS had an immediate
impact in terms of engaging new museum audiences and, more
specifically, attracting new audiences from black and minority ethnic
groups, who made up 44.7% of those attending the opening event .
The museum's diversity manager at the time stated that community
involvement in the gallery's development attracted new black audiences
from impoverished areas, and sparked debates among this demographic about
the narratives of slavery and the presentation of the historical and
contemporary black experience in London . It also had — and continues
to have — a beneficial impact on MoLD's visitor numbers. Between
January and April 2008 these showed a 35% increase relative to the same
period in 2006; numbers for 2010-2011 were even better, with 178,925
museum visitors, 50,000 more than in 2009-2010 . These higher numbers
of people coming into contact with the gallery content have significantly
enhanced its capacity to illustrate that this history of slavery is the
story of all Londoners.
The impacts of Bressey's research contribution on the quality of
visitor experiences and level of their engagement with the
gallery content are also apparent in the 937 gallery comments
reviewed from 2008 to 2012. Visitors' close engagement with the gallery
material is evident in the references in these comments to themes of
personal connection, links, emotion and humanity, with many of them
identifying strong bonds between the gallery material and visitors' own
lives. These themes are to be found in 264 (28 per cent) of comments
reviewed and are thus representative of a substantial amount of gallery
responses . The reach of the gallery's impacts on public awareness of,
and engagement with, core themes in Bressey's work has, moreover, been extended
through LSS' coverage in many local, regional, national and
international media outlets including: `Voices from the past' (16
January 2008). BBC Homes & Antiques Magazine (circulation
100,886); You and Yours (January 2008). BBC Radio 4; `London's not
too sweet' (25 January 2008). The Chronicle, local paper
(circulation 41,157); and `A story of slavery' (15 January 2008). Limited
Edition, local paper (circulation 22,195) .
LSS includes a permanent space for community groups or collectives to
produce exhibitions that respond to the gallery in any way they choose.
These exhibitions are displayed on six-month cycles, with each cycle
curated by a different community group or collective as a means of
allowing new voices to enter the gallery and engage with the research. The
space actively facilitates community engagement with cultural and
artistic heritage, including among traditionally hard-to-reach
demographics. Thus, for example, the Journeys and Kinship project,
which ran from February to November 2012, involved four members of museum
staff and around 26 young participants, predominantly black males aged
13-26 and from a mix of London areas. As part of the project, the young
people worked with research material in the gallery to create a range of
creative outputs, including music recordings and clay masks . Reporting
on the process, two of the project facilitators noted that it changed the
young participants' understanding of the past: "One of the things that the
young people [...] talked about," one reported, "is now that they've seen
the past, they can see where they are now and also what do they want to
change" . The truth of this impression was supported by discussion with
a project participant about sharing project content with others: "If I
don't show a youth it doesn't feel like I've done anything with it because
you're only as good as the person you've taught" .
Beyond connecting them with their own cultural heritage, engagement with
the research underpinning this project helped legitimise — and
therefore promote and support — discussions about race and history,
fostering a perception among its young participants that they could have
"more informed discussions", since "seeing it in the museum made it a lot
more real" . Speaking about these topics encouraged some young people
to share themes of LSS with family and friends, with one participant
citing "the impact on his parents" and the "need to go away and teach"
. A project facilitator reported: "I think it has broadened their
understanding to a point where they are more susceptible to further study
and understanding of black history, African history, the history of
Britain" . Ultimately, moreover, the project helped empower the
young people involved, with all participants since securing
internships, education or employment .
As well as facilitating community engagement, such projects have promoted
creative engagement leading to the development of new artistic
products. Examples beyond the Journeys and Kinship project include
the 2009 Living Ancestors project, an artistic tribute to the women of
Dominica, and a November 2012 poetry group on the topic of sugar, led by
Malika Booker . Loss & Liberty (August-November 2009) involved the
creation of a television broadcast by offenders at Wandsworth Prison as
part of the prison's arts education programme. The programme shows how
prisoners were able to use both images and text from the displays in LSS
to connect with understandings of their own history, as well as to express
feelings around their loss of identity and separation from family as they
experience it within the prison system . In turn the ceramic artworks
they produced inspired by ideas of freedom and liberty formed a temporary
part of LSS.
Bressey's research has also delivered educational benefits through
its use in a series of School Slavery Study Days at LSS. These
events, which are delivered by education staff at MoLD and run on average
five days a year, are typically attended by around 105 students; with 30
events since 2008, around 2,500-3,000 students have been reached so far
. The students engage with the gallery content by questioning the
relationship between slavery and London, linking subjects associated with
LSS to contemporary examples from the pupils' lives . Around ten
schools send groups to the study days every year, an indication of the
continued value the schools ascribe to this engagement.
The emphasis on including diverse voices in LSS and the stress placed in
the gallery on creating accessible narratives to link the past with
present debates of identity and belonging (as demonstrated in Bressey's
research) has been a transformative agent for the MoLD, such that
Bressey's work has had additional impacts on the Museum's own curatorial
and organisational practices . The MoLD Director noted that,
following the development of LSS, the Museum has been forced to rethink
how, for example, press officers write releases referring to race and
ethnicity, as well as the type of additional awareness training required
by museum staff . "Dr Bressey," he noted, "was able to supplement the
work and knowledge of the museum's curators, and to provide a vital link
with the consultative body which was created to inform the gallery. With
Caroline's assistance, a gallery was created that has attracted
considerable interest and attention from both visitors and museologists"
. The LSS gallery was designed to challenge the usual interpretations
of the history of slavery from outside, including through consultation
with communities, provision of collaborative spaces, and reflections on
academic and lived narratives. These provided an example of best practice
for the museum's practitioners in their development of subsequent
successful exhibitions: LSS methods were, for example, applied to the
hugely successful 'Jack the Ripper and the East End' MoLD exhibition
(May-November 2008), which attracted an audience of over 56,000 , and
LSS was used as a model for the MoLD's new gallery development for Many
East Ends, introduced in a display in September 2012 .
Sources to corroborate the impact
 Visitor Numbers Museum of London Annual Reports (2008-2009;
 Evaluation of LSS opening: `1807 Commemorated'. University of
York Audience Report,
Museum in Docklands (2008) http://www.history.ac.uk/1807commemorated/audiences/reports/.
 Statement provided by former diversity manager, MoLD on new audiences
and debates sparked by the gallery; available on request.
 Guyan, Kevin (2013). London, Sugar and Slavery interviews,
thematic reviews and slavery study days. University College London.
Available on request.
 Transcript of participant feedback filmed for Journeys and Kinship
(2012) is available on request. The film is also described on the
filmmaker's blog: http://bit.ly/1g0Ml2S.
 Malika Brooker poetry group: http://www.mymuseumoflondon.org.uk/blogs/blog/london-sugar-and-slavery-with-poet-malika-booker/.
 For the Loss and Liberty project see `Prisoners Art Connects with
Slavery'. British Satellite News (18 August 2009): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfD4dJ79MLk.
 Spence, David (2011). `Making the London Sugar and Slavery Gallery at
Museum of London Docklands.' Representing Enslavement and Abolition in
Museums: Ambiguous Engagements. L. Smith, G. Cubbit, R. Wilson, K.
Fouseki (ed). (Abingdon: Routledge), p. 152; available on request.
 Director of Museum of London Docklands (26 February 2013) on benefits
to MoLD of collaboration with Bressey, including changes in staff
training, statement available on request.
 Spence, D. et al (2013) `The public as co-producers: making the London,
Sugar and Slavery Gallery, Museum of London Docklands'. Museums
and Public Value: Creating Sustainable Futures, pp. 95-109 Carol A
Scott (ed) (Farnham: Ashgate). This chapter consists of accounts of and
reflections on the LSS by those who participated in its creation and is
available on request.