The Artfund Prize 2008 logo Winner 2012 Our sponsors About us Clore Award for Museum Learning Press room & Contact
   Back to short List 2008
   See some of your comments

The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum


Breaking the Chains is a landmark exhibition for the award-winning British Empire & Commonwealth Museum, the first major institution in the UK to present the 500-year history and legacy of Britain's overseas empire. Opened to the public in 2002, the museum is an independent charity, and receives no public funding.

Breaking the Chains was developed to mark the 200-year anniversary of the 1807 Act that abolished the British Transatlantic Slave Trade.

Its aim is to explain the origins of the trade in human lives, its impact on the people of Africa and the Caribbean, and the means by which it was brought to an end. The exhibition also explores the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the Caribbean and Britain.

The exhibition, which consists of six galleries with a final film theatre space and video response booth, was created in collaboration with a team of senior academics and a consultation group of local people. This ensured that the exhibition was factually accurate and reflected the latest scholarly thinking, and that sensitivities and controversies around this subject were respected and addressed. The objectives of the exhibition were:

  • to make the central focus the lives of the people most affected by the trade
  • the balance the feelings of anger, shame or bewilderment evoked by depiction of the brutalities of the slave trade by focusing on the courage and endurance of those who survived and resisted slavery
  • to highlight and celebrate the cultures of West Africa and the Caribbean
  • to share with visitors authored responses to this history that articulate its place in public memory.

In order to counter the dehumanising function of the slave trade, an organising principle of the exhibition layout is the celebration of the humanity of African and Caribbean people. The local consultation group insisted that Black audiences did not want to see a narrow focus on the mechanics of the slave trade. There was a clearly identified need for treatments of this history to focus on role models and position aspects of Black history.

Objects have been brought together from museums across Britain and from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Massachusetts, USA. Some of the objects have never been seen before in Britain and certainly not in the context of the trade in enslaved Africans, and in relationship with each other.

The exhibition, which runs until October 2008, has reinforced the message for the Museum’s Black audiences that the Empire & Commonwealth Museum is a place where they can celebrate and explore their culture.

Some of your comments:

This is an excellent and very moving exhibition on the history and abolition of the slave trade. Good use was made of personal stories, with interesting artefacts to illustrate different aspects – African culture, the abolition movement and so on. The presentation of information was clear, highlighting the important points, and the last section, where the visitor is shown examples of recent and current slavery in other parts of the world, makes a powerful impression. This exhibition had a more profound effect on me than the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool.
Mary Bailey, Bristol

This important and often neglected history of slavery is explained so well by the Breaking the Chains exhibition. This museum definitely deserves to win the prize on offer.
Mariza Leal, Rio, Brazil

The museum has a broad appeal, with links from the current "Breaking the Chains" exhibition to all aspects of the colonial era - trade, travel, transport, living conditions, etc. All the exhibitions in the museum have an international interest, and attract visitors from across the globe. There is an excellent oral archive, where visitors can hear the reminiscences of people who had direct experience of the colonial days. Artefacts, oral archive and special exhibitions all play their part in a first class programme for visiting children and schools.
V.G.Roberts, Crewe

I did really like the Breaking the Chains exhibition. It is cleverly designed, has plenty of very interesting facts and the interactive bits are absolutely brilliant!  Will definitely come back to see it more in detail. I am proud of Bristol having such a great museum.
Ania Balcerek, Bristol


Next entry