A Visible Difference: skin, race and identity 1720 -1820
The bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade has offered many opportunities to think about the past and the present. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this analysis is in terms of the responses to racism in contemporary British society, how individuals act towards those who might be perceived as different and how notions of identity are constructed. All these issues are represented in the exhibition, 'A Visible Difference: skin, race and identity 1720-1820', at the Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London. The 'forgotten histories' of individuals from Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries who lived with skin pigmentation conditions are brought to attention in this challenging display.
Central to the exhibition are two portraits, one of George Alexander Gratton (1808-1813) and one of Mary Sabina (1736-unknown). Both of these individuals were born to enslaved African parents and both suffered from the condition known as piebaldism, a genetic condition which causes discolouration in skin pigmentation leading to extreme white patches developing on the skin and hair. The exhibition examines the lives of these two individuals and European responses to their condition in the context of Enlightenment thought. This enables a deconstruction of the myths of distinct human 'races' which has proved so pernicious since the conception of a 'hierarchy of humanity' with western Enlightenment philosophy. The exhibition makes clear the arbitrary nature of these distinctions and that notions of 'race' and 'difference' are products of social and cultural conditions. The fascination with 'difference' both in the late modern period and today is also explored in the exhibition as the way in which this difference constitutes a sense of identity is detailed.
The exhibition is held in a single room, the Qvist Gallery, and contains five panels, four portraits, an interactive display screen and two display cases. The limited area in which the exhibition is situated does not detract from the value of this space as an exhibition. The display of Histoire Naturelle a 36-volume work by the French scientist George Louis Leclerc (1707-1788) demonstrates the search for a 'scientific' explanation of skin pigmentation disorders. Enlightenment thought is shown to have considered these individuals to be either the product of sexual relations between Africans and Europeans or the result of nature's 'deviations.' These explanations of difference are shown to have been made in the belief that humanity could be divided into separate, distinct branches of development. The conceptual framework of these ideas of 'race' is shown in the justifications given for the enslavement and wholesale abuse of enslaved Africans. The concept of inferiority linked to skin colour is highlighted as emerging during this period.
Individuals such as Gratton and Sabina were exhibited during their lifetime, their condition earning them the status of curiosities. This status is one of the key examining points of the exhibition. The display of their portraits subtly forces the present-day viewer to examine their own interest in the portraits they see before them. Does the presentation of these conditions today mean any more than the 'freak shows' Gratton and Sabina were made to participate in? The exhibition leaves this question for the visitor to decide upon, but it does provide testaments from present-day individuals who have the same condition to reflect upon how Gratton and Sabina were used. The thoughts of one individual, who has the condition vitiligo, are used to challenge these notions of difference.
'Having vitiligo has been an amazing experience. It has transformed my life. At first it felt like a huge burden, which I longed to be rid of. However, once I realised that I am more than just a person with vitiligo my life changed.'
The skin conditions, piebaldism, vitiligo and albinism are therefore examined in the exhibition; they are explained both in their medical sense and their etymology.
'...the term "piebald" is derived from the Latin word for "magpie." It was (and is) used to describe animals whose bodies are covered in black and white patches. In the 18th century it was also used in an insulting way to describe things that were mismatched.'
'...Albino was derived from the Latin "albus", used to describe things such as chalk that are "dead white" (without shine) or people who are pale from sickness or terror. Vitiligo is also a Latin word. In the 17th century it was used to describe "a foulness of the skin."
The exhibition asks importantly, 'these associations are now considered offensive, but we still use the same terms today. What is the current language of difference?' Highlighting the self-reflective nature of the exhibition the displays once again ask the museum visitor to examine their own reactions to confrontations with difference. This examination is certainly not limited to visitors themselves but the museum itself takes an opportunity to question the reasons why its original collector John Hunter (1728-1793) took time to collect such examples. The display asks quite openly, 'Was John Hunter a racist?' This consideration is in keeping with an intelligent display which seeks to challenge prevailing notions within society regarding difference, ethnicity and identity.
The exhibition deals with the emotive and traumatic subject of the enslavement of Africans by European in a straightforward, clinical fashion. There is a distinct lack of emotive language in the stories of Gratton and Sabina, who were only children when they were taken away from their parents to be exhibited. The exhibition relays their stories without detailed recourse to the traumatic history of the transatlantic slave trade. The history of slavery appears nevertheless through the display of the 'Surgeon's Log', a journal kept by Christopher Bowes, a surgeon on the slave ship Lord Stanley in 1788. It is here the basic facts about the history of the slave trade are offered to the museum visitor.
'Between 1450 and 1850 at least 12 million Africans were taken across the "Middle Passage of the Atlantic. Between 1791 and 1800 1,340 slaving voyages began from British ports.'
A surgeons' perspective on the slave ship is offered through this display, as the role of the surgeon in keeping alive enslaved individuals so no profit would be lost upon their sale is presented.
'The surgeon was often paid per slave at the end of the voyage, although we don't know if this was the case with Bowes. Common illnesses were seasickness, dysentery, smallpox, general fevers and being overcome by the oppressive heat.'
The exhibition offers a valuable and a very distinctive contribution to the marking of the bicentenary by asking questions about how society responds to differences between peoples. Its value in this bicentenary year is to examine the wider repercussions of the transatlantic slave trade, though the details of the enslavement of Africans by Europeans is noted in the exhibition it is the poisonous inheritance of racism and prejudice which is challenged in this exhibition. The exhibition makes no recourse to pulling on the 'emotional chords of memory' it states its intentions clearly and precisely and by doing so enables a consideration by the visitor of their own perspectives.
The above review offers a starting point for debating some significant issues in the histories of slavery and abolition, and in the way those issues are presented in museums and exhibitions. What can such an exhibition teach us - about the social world in which slavery and abolitionism developed, and about the patterns of social inclusion and exclusion that they engendered? What problems arise in presenting and reflecting upon these histories? If you have thoughts to contribute, on these issues generally, or on the exhibition or the review more specifically, please email the 1807 Commemorated project team - firstname.lastname@example.org.