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    New Bodleian exhibit sheds light on destructive legacy of the British Empire

    Elliot Armstrong-Reed reports.

    The University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries has partnered with the Museum of Colour and Fusion Arts to create These Things Matter: Empire, Exploitation and Everyday-Racism, a one-of-a-kind collaborative exhibition that will examine the devastating long-term impacts of the British empire.

    The exhibition will run from Thursday 17 November and be accessible to the public both in-person, at the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall, and digitally, via the Museum of Colour’s online platform. Featuring selected artefacts from The Bodleian’s colonial collections, These Things Matter will aim to demonstrate how everyday communications helped to maintain the dominance of the British empire and Transatlantic Slave Trade. It is hoped that the inclusion of these artefacts, offered through a 21st century lens, will enlighten visitors as to their use in the systematic oppression of people of colour over several centuries.

    The brainchild of Samenua Sesher, founder of the Museum of Colour, These Things Matter will feature the work of seven selected contemporary artists, one for each of the six artefacts on display, in addition to one piece reflecting the display in its entirety. Bunmi Ogunsiji, Grace Lee, Mina Atiq, Dirty Freud, Nilupa Yasmin, Mahmoud Mahdy and Johannah Latchem will each offer a personal response to their respective artefact through digital displays, art installations and sound. Collectively, the exhibition will take its visitors on a unique journey through the history of the slave trade by forcing them to consider the simple tools that ultimately enabled this systemic persecution.

    Sesher credits her discovery of the so-called Slave Bible- a reworking of the Holy Bible that sought to deprive literate slaves from knowing of their right to freedom or dissuade them from thoughts of rebellion- as an initial source of inspiration. The Bible, which is currently held in the Bodleian’s collections, forms a central part of the exhibition. Of this discovery, Sesher has said: “Museum of Colour and the Bodleian were looking at how to build on our work together on Museum of Colour’s pilot exhibition, People of Letters. So, when I learnt about the ‘Slave Bible’, and that the Bodleian held a copy, I realised that we had the makings of a really compelling exhibition.”

    She continued: ‘This exhibition will highlight the less discussed but conscious emotional manipulation in items like books and maps. Our co-curative process enabled us all to see the legacies in our societies today. The ongoing manipulation which makes some people think they are better than others and convinces other people that they are less.’

    Antony Brewerton, Director of Academic Library Services at the Bodleian Libraries, said: “The Bodleian Libraries is honoured to partner with the Museum of Colour and Fusion Arts for such an important exhibition. Throughout history words and other mediums have been used to manipulate society and achieve certain outcomes, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade was no different. It is important that people know that and I am proud that the Bodleian is able to host such a necessary experience.”

    These Things Matter also signals a new mode of collaboration within the culture and heritage sector whereby traditional, large-scale, organisations are increasingly looking toward working with micro partners, in the hopes of creating accessible visitor experiences. Kieran Cox, Artistic Director of Fusion Arts, has paid tribute to the featured artists, saying: “I specifically want to highlight and give gratitude to all the artists who have engaged with the artefacts and objects with such deep care, responsibility and generosity. The content of these documents evokes such strong, and raw, emotions that not only speaks to the atrocious emotional control, repression and violence of the past but also to the present-day everyday experience.”

    Image credit:Bodleian Libraries

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