The BAAS Public Engagement and Impact Award (awarded February 2017) allowed me to organise an extensive public event programme for the Journey to Justice exhibition at the National Justice Museum, writes Hannah-Rose Murray.
The BAAS Public Engagement and Impact Award allowed me to organise an extensive public event programme for the Journey to Justice exhibition at the National Justice Museum. It represented an alliance between PhD students at the University of Nottingham, Backlit Gallery (a registered charity in Nottingham) and the travelling exhibition Journey to Justice (J2J). The exhibition highlights the history of US Civil Rights Activism alongside each hosting city’s own history of social justice campaigning.
As the exhibition travels, it links with local communities and in Nottingham this connection was enhanced by our relationship with Backlit Gallery. Our piece of the exhibition highlighted the connection between Samuel Morley, a Nottingham philanthropist and social reformer, and Josiah Henson, a formerly enslaved African American individual who travelled to Britain several times during the nineteenth century and stayed with Morley on both occasions. I am researching Josiah Henson’s visits to the UK as part of my PhD, which focuses on black abolitionists in Britain: this history is scarcely known and the events we organised were an excellent vehicle to advance public engagement with a unique part of American history that has relevance to the UK. Our partners – J2J and Backlit – had already done extensive work on Morley and social activism in general. For example, see the creation of a digital resource: http://www.morleythreads.com/human-rights/enter. We wanted to bring this history to life and tell the story of this Nottingham connection. The exhibition housed original books by Henson, a newspaper print describing his impact on Britain, and rare items belonging to Samuel Morley. This local story as part of J2J was the only section of the entire exhibition to feature original artefacts.
From the end of April 2017 to the beginning of June 2017, I organized five ‘Penny Lectures’ in three venues across the city of Nottingham (Nottingham Contemporary, National Justice Museum, and the New Art Exchange). During the nineteenth century, Samuel Morley introduced a series of penny lectures in London, designed to increase the education of the working classes who would pay just a ‘penny’ to witness lectures on science, geography, history and art (to name a few). Inspired by Morley, I wanted to recreate the penny lectures but this time focusing on subjects both men were passionate about, including slavery, community activism and social justice:
“Morley’s Legacy”: Wednesday 26 April 2017, 5:30pm, National Justice Museum – Matt Chesney from BACKLIT Art Gallery gave a short talk on Morley’s legacy in Nottingham, the history of BACKLIT as an institution (housed in a building once owned by Morley) and showed a unique piece of artwork he designed for the exhibition.
“African American Activism in Nottingham”: Tuesday 2nd May 2017, 6:30pm, Hannah-Rose Murray, Nottingham Contemporary – I gave a short talk on the history of Black American activism in Nottingham, focusing on the lives of Josiah Henson, Moses Roper, Frederick Douglass and William and Ellen Craft, all of whom travelled to Nottingham to lecture against slavery. It was the first time I have spoken for so long on my PhD (my presentation was an hour, followed by half an hour of questions), so it was an opportunity for me to improve my public speaking skills and to explain my PhD to a public audience.
“The Slave Trade Legacies Project”: Thursday 18th May 2017, 6:30pm, New Art Exchange – Lisa Robinson (Bright Ideas) discussed her work as a community activist in particular focusing on the Slave Trade Legacies Project, which forced the UNESCO World Heritage Site Derwent Valley Mills to acknowledge their links to the slave trade. This exciting and ground-breaking project hopes to convince other British heritage sites to follow suit, including Newstead Abbey (Nottinghamshire).
“The Freedom Blueprint”: Monday 29TH May 2017, 6:30pm, National Museum of Justice – Professor Zoe Trodd discussed the ground-breaking work she is currently working on at the University of Nottingham, the Beacon of Excellence that focuses on ending contemporary slavery by 2030. Trodd’s excellent presentation focused on numerous aspects of the Beacon from the geo-spatial satellites to visual culture, and a lively discussion ensued in the Q&A section.
“Black History Heritage”: Thursday 8th June 2017, 6:30pm, New Art Exchange: Community activist, performance poet and Masters graduate Panya Banjoko discussed the inception and reception of her organisation, Nottingham Black Archives in the local Nottinghamshire community. She focused on numerous projects conducted by NBA including the collection of oral testimonies from black veterans of World War Two, as well as some of the most exciting artefacts donated by the community.
All of the lectures were well attended (apart from the one on the 8th June, which was unfortunately organised before the election!) The feedback was very positive and many of those who came to the lectures visited the Journey to Justice exhibition but also attended the performance on the 7th July. It was great to see so many people from the city interested in Nottingham’s social justice heritage.
“The Iron in My Soul”: A Performance
The performance was held at BACKLIT Art Gallery (a building once owned by Morley) on Friday 7th July 2017, 7-9pm (Eventbrite link – www.theironinmysoul.eventbrite.co.uk) Matt Chesney (BACKLIT Art Gallery) and myself wrote the script, and we hired two actors, Jim Findley and Melvyn Rawlinson, to play Josiah Henson and Samuel Morley respectively. The performance was heavily promoted through the University of Nottingham, Midlands3Cities, the National Justice Museum and Journey to Justice, and I arranged for a short publicity segment on BBC Radio Nottingham on 3 July 2017, who were greatly interested in the project.
In a small space that could just about hold 45 people, it was a full house on the 7th and both actors received resounding applause several times for their portrayal of Morley and Henson. Several of the audience members were even reduced to tears by Findley’s portrayal of Henson’s memories of slavery. Myself, Matt, Jim and Melvyn took part in a Q&A afterward, and we had some insightful and excellent questions from the audience on Matt’s role in uncovering Morley’s legacy, my PhD and Henson’s activism in Britain, and how much research the actors undertook. The feedback was incredibly positive, and all were in agreement that the play should be performed again, and funding permitting, performed outside of Nottingham. Attached to this email are some promotional pictures and the performance poster.
The performance was also filmed in its entirety, and will be uploaded to the Antislavery Usable Past website (http://www.usablepast.ac.uk) We thought carefully about how to ‘preserve’ this unique performance, or create an ‘afterlife’ for it, and decided that filming the actors in rehearsal and on the night itself would do this adequately. By creating a trailer from edited scenes and placing the performance on the internet, we can distribute it via social media and encourage our partners and colleagues – and others too – who might be interested. The Antislavery Usable Past project seeks to uncover usable lessons from the past to use today in the fight for social justice and the end of contemporary slavery. Because of the generosity of BAAS (without which the performance could not have taken place) we can share the video worldwide, teach others about the legacy of Morley and Henson and search for lessons in their speeches that we can use today.
After this extensive public engagement programme, we hope to ensure further impact by working closely with groups in Britain and heritage sites in America and Canada that have a connection to Josiah Henson. BACKLIT have already established contact with a site in Canada, and we want to sustain these transatlantic links to highlight Morley and Henson’s dual legacy, a story which represents the campaign for freedom and equality in Nottingham, and beyond. Furthermore, we have already established a working relationship with the Morley Union and the Morley College (London), ironically where the Journey to Justice exhibition has already been!
Hannah-Rose Murray is a PhD student in the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham.