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.
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.