In Plain Sight: Decolonising the Museum

Detail from Joy Gregory’s The Sweetest Thing (2021)

Anabelle Howorth, Alex Jones, and Tim Robertson

As students on the British World module at Exeter we recently discussed why the place of the colonial past has become so contentious over the last thirty years. In doing so, we considered the concerns of the ‘new museology’ in seeking to make museums fora for public engagement and discussion of this past. We also considered recent attempts to raise awareness of the region’s connections with colonialism, such as the ‘In Plain Sight’ exhibition at the RAMM in Exeter, which traces Devon’s connections with the Atlantic slave trade. The exhibition does an excellent job of providing a new understanding of the overlooked connections between places we see everyday and one of the darkest episodes in history. In particular, Joy Gregory’s commissioned work, ‘The Sweetest Thing’ highlights the connections between local wealthy families and slavery in the Caribbean. The tapestry includes compensation figures, which were awarded to claimants by the British government following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Knowledge of the huge sums awarded to former slave owners has become more widespread over recent years through the digitisation of records by the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project but it is still rare for a regional museum to feature this history prominently.

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