Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities Part II

Exploring the links between slave-ownership and the V&A

About the Project

Opening the Cabinets of Curiosities Part II seeks to uncover some of the unexplored histories of the V&A, in many respects a large-scale 19th century ‘cabinet of curiosity’. It does this by examining the links between British slave-ownership, collecting and the development of the Museum.


Absentee slave-owners used their wealth, rooted in the exploitation of enslaved people, to help reshape nineteenth-century Britain. Found across the length and breadth of the country, they were aristocrats and MPs, clergymen and aged widows, collectors and connoisseurs. The legacies of this history continue to shape the world we live in, and the museums we visit, today.


This project investigates the links between British slave-ownership and the development of the V&A. In particular, it explores absentees who used their wealth to invest in collections in the metropole. Objects that were once in the collections of absentee slave-owners are now dotted throughout the Museum, found in almost every gallery. But the violent histories embodied in these objects are rarely acknowledged. The project thus also raises the question of how, in a twenty-first century museum, we can confront and engage with this violent and sometimes uncomfortable history.


In addition to talks, tours and academic publications, one of the main outcomes of this project is a piece of artistic work. Poet, writer and artist-in-residence Victoria Adukwei Bulley has responded to this research to create a series of five films entitled A Series of Unfortunate Inheritances. In these films Bulley unearths the names, lives and experiences of individuals whose enslavement is ineffably tied to items held within the museum’s collections. She uses text, film and photography to provide a human face to this history.

Project updates
15 December 2017
VARI Artist in Residence Call: Opening the Cabinet, Histories of Slavery and Slave-Ownership
We are delighted to announce our new call for artists who are keen to engage with the histories of slavery and slave-ownership that are ‘hidden in plain sight’ within in the museum, as part of...
16 March 2017
The Cabinet of Curiosities: Reflections on modern art historical thinking
If you, like me, are curious about cabinets of curiosity, the inaugural Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Lecture on the history of collecting was a key date. Given by esteemed art historian and authority on the...
16 March 2017
VARI Cabinets Workshop travels from art to science through a magic door
The past few days have seen VARI focusing on Opening the Cabinet of Curiosities — one of our key research projects.  Dr Lisa Skogh and Professor Bill Sherman led an international workshop looking at the...
The Team
Dr Marta Ajmar
Deputy Director of VARI
Dr Hannah Young
Public Engagement Fellow
Artists in Residence

Troubling Objects brought together academics, artists, activists and museum professionals to share ideas about how we can rethink both histories of collecting and the representation, interpretation and display of historical collections.

Background image: Still, 'What Was I But Factory', Victoria Adukwei Bulley, 2018, London. © Victoria Adukwei Bulley