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Embodied memory in the museum

The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade has ensured that museums have sought to find new ways in which to represent the often painful history of the British enslavement of individuals from Africa. Locating a means of relaying this history to a diverse audience in an accessible and respectful manner is the issue that museums have been handling in 2007.

Within the various displays and exhibitions in museums, objects, audiovisual displays, narratives and label texts have been designed and redesigned to fulfil this objective. Whilst many institutions have provided stimulating and provoking representations of the past a survey of museum displays reveals a particular absence in these efforts: a notion of embodiment.

It is argued in this article that museums have relied too heavily on the visual in their efforts to depict the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. In doing this they have neglected the tendency of audiences to think and remember with their bodies, through their bodies, and thereby formulate an embodied memory.

Insert Image: ISM-Middle Passage Photo: International Slavery Museum, Middle Passage

The dominance of vision

Museums have, since their inception in the eighteenth century, been dominated by concepts of the visual. The curiosity cabinets of the gentlemen collectors provided a means to cast the expert, trained eye over artefacts. Pieces were placed due to their aesthetic beauty. They were to be gazed at and appreciated for their visual appearance (Bennett 1995).

The modern museum has perpetuated this 'ocularcentricity' by displaying artefacts of the past for visual consumption. The glass display case acts to enclose the object, just as the gallery portrait is bound by the frame. The artefacts become therefore no more than visual stimulation for the visitor.

The notion that visitors come to museums 'to look at objects' is an underlying presumption within the work of some museums. Exhibition and display as a purely visual experience is embedded in this instance within practice and policy.

Insert Image Photo: Visitors at the Equiano Exhibition ( Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Recent studies advocating the advent of the 'post-museum', of a break from the traditions which have confined museum practice, still place great value on visual culture and notions of 'seeing' in museums (Hooper Greenhill 2000). Critiques of museum displays have also focused largely on the visual signs to decode the hidden biases within representations (Haraway 1985).

There therefore appears to be a dominant mode of appreciation and understanding of museums based solely on the visual. It is apparently only by looking at museums, their texts and their displays that a knowledge and understanding of the past can be transmitted. There are however alternative means of representation, through which exhibition displays can be comprehended and accessed by visitors.

Cartesian Museums

Despite the advent of a substantial body of criticism over the last twenty years (see Bennett 1995; Walsh 1992), museums as institutions, deriving from the principles of the European enlightenment, maintain the philosophy of that period. This is most evident in the notion of the Cartesian divide of the body and mind.

Descartes (1993) writing in the seventeenth century stated the division between the corporeal and the cognitive. The body was in this conception a fallible, weak instrument incapable of providing the rational perspective that could only be achieved through cognitive contemplation.

Museums through their insistence on the importance of the visual continue this separation between body and mind. Museums are conceived as 'feasts for the eyes' whilst the rest of the senses are neglected.

Insert Image Photo: Detailed display panels at Wilberforce House Museum, Hull

The focus on the visual derives from the embedded perception within modern Western culture of the intellectual value of the visual. To see something in this instance is to understand and comprehend. The phrase 'seeing is believing' is the mantra of this rational philosophy.

The visual is considered to provide the neutral air of the distanced observer. To admit physicality into the equation would appear to suggest 'bias' and subjectivity and leave the field open to less 'rational' forms of knowledge.

The body in mind

Located outside this dominant visual-orientated position is the sense of physical engagement with the world. The senses of the body are accorded greater weight in this approach. The Cartesian dualism is abandoned here as individuals are conceived to be corporeal and cognitive beings located in the material world around them.

This position could be considered in direct contrast to the intellectual gaze and dominance of the visual. The phrase 'I feel it in my bones' would aptly summarise this stance.

Theorists have highlighted how people inhabit their surroundings, how they engage physically with their material environments (Merleau-Ponty 1968). In this way knowledge is derived not from the visual but the physical and the apprehension of the physical. That human beings place themselves within the world not as a bodiless, distant observers, but as active, engaged participants.

The body in the museum

Employing these notions of embodiment in museums provides a radical rethink of how museums represent the past to visitors. In the context of the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade it creates difficult, challenging but ultimately accessible pasts based upon asking the visitor to use their own bodies to think about and remember the past.

In several respects this proposition is not entirely novel and does not require a great deal of further explanation to visitors. The sense of the body to describe and understand is already well-used though often unacknowledged within everyday life. Individuals frequently invoke the body to describe and comprehend the world around them. Through metaphor and simile language especially is used to convey our physical being in several contexts. Harsh words can 'cut us', we feel things 'in our gut', and we talk of situations 'pressing on us'.

What is proposed here therefore is that visitors to museums do not solely bring their cognitive functions, they bring their entire selves. They bring knowledge of inhabiting, of touching, sensing and feeling.

When visitors witness objects on display they are not passively viewed but rather considered in relation to their own bodies. The body has an 'intentional perspective' in relation to the world (Merleau-Ponty 1968). Humans perceive objects with their bodies.

The utensil in a museum display for example is experienced not solely for its appearance but for the imagined weight of its handle, the texture of the material, the friction of its use; we perceive its warmth, coldness, smoothness. The sensations arise not from directly handling the object, rather from the way in which we perceive objects always from the perspective that they are to be handled (Heidegger 1962).

This is not to advocate a museum with reconstructed physical settings and smells. It is to consider the various ways in which knowledge and understanding is communicated apart from the visual.

'Human embodiment directly influences what and how things can be meaningful for us, the ways in which these meanings can be developed and articulated, the ways we are able to comprehend and reason about our experience and the actions we take. Our reality is shaped by the patterns of our bodily movement, the contours of our spatial and temporal orientation, and the forms of our interaction with objects' (Johnson 1987: xix).

Differences in bodies

To focus on the body in museum representations also necessitates an engagement with the very principles of the social inclusive policies that museums are now expected to install.

To suggest a corporeal perspective in the museum isn't to suggest that a single, generic 'human body' should be considered.

Human bodies are collective and individual, different and similar: age, gender, ethnicity, class, occupation are all engaged in how humans view and experience their own bodies.

Rather than this being divisive it serves to engender a common means of understanding for individuals. We witness another individual who experienced the physical world in the past as we experience the physical world in the present.

Gender, ethnicity, education and class are not barriers in this respect to comprehending the past or finding relevance for what they see in the present. They are means by which visitors access the museum representation. As interpretative devices they should therefore be accommodated within exhibitions and displays.

Putting the body into museums does not rely solely on the positioning of artefacts within displays, enabling the handling of reproduction artefacts or reconstructing historical settings. It involves far more subtle forms of representation through text, images and material culture.

Narrative and the body

Notions of the body are called forth by narrative and representation. We write the body into text as we read the body in the text.

This is more than just descriptions of the physical experiences of an individual, but through metaphor and simile the corporeal perspective can be communicated. The museum representation of the transatlantic slave trade panels and labels can be reconsidered in this perspective.

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the representation of the history of the European enslavement of Africans has been the middle passage and the plantation system. Achieving a means of representing this history respectfully and directly has confronted many museum practitioners.

The response to representing this history has usually been to detail the factual and to provide suitable images. In the case of the middle passage this is usually either of the Brookes or similar portraits and engravings of the period. The choices of text used for this history can be observed in these two examples;

Ships would leave British slaving ports for Africa. When the ships had been filled with captives they set sail across the Atlantic Ocean for the islands in the Caribbean or America. The journey took 6-8 weeks, the slaves were kept below in cramped conditions, shackled, in darkness and suffering from disease. One in 5 slaves died on the journey.
Museum Text 1 - 1807 Commemorated Archive

Chained together, hundreds of Africans were herded onto ships for the Middle Passage to the Caribbean Islands or the Americas. Illness spread quickly and ships that were delayed often ran out of food and clean water. The journey could take up to six months yet, despite the brutal conditions, between 80 and 90% of the Africans on board reached their destination alive.
Museum Text 2 - 1807 Commemorated Archive

Both these examples rely on conveying the history through a distanced, disembodied, third-person perspective. This not to say that this does not have value, but that there is no inherent value for museums to choose to represent the past in this manner.

An area where writing the body into the text would also be essential is the sexual exploitation of African women in the history of enslavement. Too often museum representations avoid this brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade.

Writing of this rape and sexual abuse is difficult, but this is the history of human bodies, and the fear, pain, anger and dispossession of an individual's own body must be brought to bear within the museum narrative.

Similarly, the bodies of the slave masters must also be considered, the power, domination and control over others is an essential aspect of this history.

This is not solely a history of the suffering and exploitation of the human physical form however. The body in freedom and resistance explores other ways of accessing this history.

Writing the body into texts is not an esoteric skill best left to artists and poets, but a practice that demonstrates a historical concern with the physical conditions of the individual.

Just as some museum texts representing the history of enslavement concern themselves with the economics of the transatlantic slave trade, or the politics of the transatlantic slave trade, this perspective concerns itself with the corporeality of the transatlantic slave trade.

Objects and the body

Displays which consider the body in their representations do necessarily have to engage in what can be the deeply traumatic and painful aspects of the past. This is especially the case in the representation of the British and European enslavement of Africans.

How can the display of objects like manacles and whips be displayed in a manner which can inform visitors of their purpose to but which does honours the memory of those who were enslaved?

These areas can too often be passed over in representations, or neglected, as they are perceived to be too difficult or to painful to be discussed. This is especially the case in representations which focus on abstract conceptions of trade, economics and commerce, rather than the material and physical conditions of individuals.

Too often attempts to engage with corporeal histories are considered to be salacious or voyeuristic. This is a criticism justified when the purpose is for titillation but in the construction of a representation which seeks to develop understanding, acknowledgement and moral responsibility it is an accusation intended to undermine the ability to apprehend representations in new, constructive ways.

Objects such as weapons and manacles are objects of control, they are designed to be used by people to control, subjugate and inflict pain upon other people. Museum displays which rely on the plain display of these objects in display cases obscure this association.

Objects of violence and control are displayed 'side on' or below the eye level in many museums; they are presented as art objects designed to stimulate the visual senses. There is a danger in this instance of valuing the objects as aesthetic items not as functional objects.

The presentation of these objects as they were witnessed provides a different perspective. Presenting objects 'face on' ensures the object is realised for what it was, as an instrument of death, mutilation and control. This asks the visitor to consider the object as an instrument of power and domination.

Corporeal histories in museums

A number of museums have engaged in this concept of embodied history on a number of levels with the marking of the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade.

The Royal Naval Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth in their exhibition Chasing Freedom engages with a sense of the corporeal. Whilst the displays include representations of manacles and a section of a slave ship, the museum text focuses heavily on the physical conditions of the sailors of the Royal Navy West African Squadron.

Both Wilberforce House and the Equiano Exhibition in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery use a physical experience, whether through an outline drawing or a recess in the display wall, to demonstrate the confines of the middle passage.

The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool uses an audio-visual installation to depict the middle passage. Individuals are shown with manacled hands and feet, sweating and vomiting in the holds of a slave ship.

These uses of the body in representing the history of the transatlantic slave trade can be considered initial forays into writing and representing the corporeal. However, the way in which humans comprehend the world through their own physicality is not a significant consideration in museology as a whole.

Embodied memory in the museum

The value of placing the body into the consideration of the past and especially the history of the transatlantic slave trade is that it confronts issues which tend to be avoided in representations which concern economic or maritime history.

This is specifically, how you engage audiences in this history that do not associate themselves or identify with this history; an audience for whom this history is specifically the history of 'the other'.

Recognition of the suffering, pain and pleasure of human bodies in the past however disturbing is a means of acknowledging the experience of 'the other' as the individual is required to use their own physical existence to comprehend the existence of 'the other'.

The legacy of this understanding is an identification with 'the other', whether this is a historically distant other or a contemporary group or societal other. In this respect this form of representation is one based on recognising history and a means of being-in-the-world.

The enslavement of Africans by Britain and other European nations in the transatlantic slave trade is a history of pain and suffering. It is a crime in human history of epic proportions inflicting damage on the attitudes of succeeding generations from Europe, Africa and America.

Placing the body in the memory of this history is not a divisive act, designed to further alienate and disparage those of African or European heritage. It is an act of reconciliation.

bell hooks (1990: 215) states that this recognition is key to continuing within the world, 'I say remember the pain because I believe true resistance begins with people confronting pain, whether its theirs or somebody else's and wanting to do something to change it'.

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