UCL and Hackney Museum and Archives

About the project

University College London (UCL) and Hackney Museum and Archives worked together on ‘The Legacies of British Slave-ownership’ project, delivering an exhibition, adult learner events, and a schools programme. The project, which was funded in two parts through the Arts Council, also created educational resources: teachers’ notes, suggested activities, a film, image galleries and a website. The project was initially based on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership online database (a digitisation of the original collection of slavery compensation records held at The National Archives) and was expanded to include previously unidentified archival material relating to the history of slavery in Hackney Archives and other regional repositories.

Students visited the local sites associated with slavery and undertook archival research in Hackney, working with maps, indentures, wills and other primary sources. Students then worked with creative practitioners to develop spoken word and theatre performances for a black history conference at the Bloomsbury Theatre. The partners developed an exhibition ‘Who Were the Slave-owners of Hackney’ which was shown at Hackney Museum in 2014 and Hackney Archives in 2015. While the project ran from 2013 to 2014, events and the dissemination of resources continued until 2017 and the research has been presented at a number of academic conferences, workshops and public history events in both the UK and the Caribbean. The partnerships built between many project partners have evolved and have provided opportunities to collaborate in other ways.

Challenges and opportunities

Staff time was an issue for both the museum and the university. We heavily underestimated how much time a project like this would actually take up. There was also a series of job losses/cuts for the museum and archives staff which were not anticipated. Additional funding had to be obtained because we ended up expanding the project to bring in new elements. Recruiting teachers outside of our partner schools proved to be difficult, which made developing resources in partnership with the schools where we envisaged using them impossible. We were able to gain some feedback from teachers at a launch event at the museum, but by then the education packs had been developed and we did not have any funding left to redo the design work.

We were able to incorporate student feedback much more successfully as we piloted some of the material while it was being developed via our schools programme. The students made really important contributions that allowed us to make sure their voices and concerns shaped the development of the pack. We were very fortunate to have a series of opportunities after the formal end of the project to disseminate the work we had done. We have given talks about the project in Edinburgh, London and Jamaica. A further project between some of the partners based on the history of slavery and abolition at Newington Green Church is now in development.

Responding to challenges and opportunities

We were all determined to see the project through so any challenges were dealt with by making sure that communications were open and that a proactive attitude was fostered between project members. There was a responsive project team who were committed enough to the subject matter to put in the many hours of additional work required to make sure that we fulfilled the objectives we had set out. We took every opportunity to develop and expand the project– which is probably why we ended up overstretched. This resulted in more work but it also opened up new avenues for the project and in the end it was all worth it.

Outomes

  • Students gained knowledge, skills and a sense of empowerment through an engagement with history and the archive
  • The students at Hackney BSix set up their own history group to continue to work together
  • The Museum developed a relationship with the Hackney Learning Trust and with the two schools
  • The Legacies film is Hackney Museum’s most highly viewed film with over 1000 views on Vimeo and Youtube
  • The Museum ran the Adult Learners Hackney Archive event again
  • The exhibition boards were reused by Hackney Archive
  • The project provided a template for a history club facilitated by artists, which can be replicated in local schools on an annual basis
  • UCL built new relationships with schools and learned how to develop their research into appropriate material for the classroom
  • UCL were able to engage the public with their research via the museum, archive and schools.
  • UCL wrote a book chapter on the project for ‘Britain’s History and Memory of Slavery: The Local Nuances of a National Sin’ (Liverpool University Press, 2016)
  • Hackney Archives wrote an article about the project for Hackney Today, a local newspaper which goes to local households and is available online
  • UCL wrote a blog post as part of the Maritime Museum’s commemoration of International Slavery Remembrance Day
  • UCL used the project as a case study in its final presentation about Legacies of British Slave-ownership in London
  • Feedback from other museums suggests that they are interested in mirroring this project for their school programmes as a result

Lessons learnt

This project taught us the value of working across academic and public history institutions. Each of the partners brought with them specialist networks, knowledge and skill sets that enabled us to learn from each other. There were pressures, particularly the loss of key members of staff during the lifespan of the project, however there was also a deep commitment by all the partners to see the process through to its conclusion. This created some strain as core academic/museum work had to be undertaken simultaneously. Given the levels of enthusiasm among the partners, the project developed to include some unplanned elements, which also added to a sense that we might be overstretching. We found it quite difficult to recruit more teachers to get involved in the project, which is understandable given the huge time pressures they work under. The greatest achievement of the project was the sense of empowerment and the deep passion for the subject that the students expressed. Connecting local and global histories allowed them to see their surroundings in a different light, encouraging them to connect with the past in new ways.

Future development

Ideally we would like to see programmes like this rolled out for all the London boroughs (and nationally). The format we followed was very simple and with more funding and a dedicated team it could make for a really exciting and innovative way to approach the teaching of slavery both in schools and within a museum/archives context. We have benefitted greatly from the coming together of academics, archivists, museum workers and teachers. This kind of cross-institutional historical practice should be encouraged and supported but it is impossible to do this kind of work without additional funding. We hope that other people are encouraged to form these kinds of partnerships as the results can be transformative.