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Exhibition showcases Bath Abbey’s ‘guilty heritage’ of slavery and colonialism

28 May 2021

Bath Abbey

A composite of the monuments featured in the exhibition

A composite of the monuments featured in the exhibition

AN EXHIBITION has opened at Bath Abbey to explore stories of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade as revealed through the Abbey’s memorials.

The exhibition, “Monuments, Empire and Slavery”, which opened on Monday and runs until 4 September, focuses on the relationship between people commemorated at the Abbey, the city of Bath, the British Empire, and the slave trade in the 1700s and 1800s. It also explores the presence of the Abolitionist movement in Bath, and encourages visitors to reflect on past injustice and racial equality.

Earlier this month, the Church Buildings Council and the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England published guidance for parishes and cathedral chapters on what to do about plaques, statues, inscriptions, and other monuments in their buildings which relate to people associated with the slave trade and racism (News, 14 May).

The final two panels of the exhibition depict images by the contemporary Black artist Manoel Akure, and set out the Abbey’s plans for work towards equality, anti-racism, and justice

The framework, which calls for a review of all contested historical objects in English churches, emerged from the consultation announced by the C of E after the Black Lives Matter protests last June were sparked by the murder of George Floyd (News, 5 June 2020).

It gives examples of churches, such as the medieval Bath Abbey, that are contextualising these objects through exhibitions, or through the use of labels, information boards, leaflets, and new inscriptions.

Between 1572 and 1845, 891 gravestones and 635 wall tablets were erected in Bath Abbey, commemorating about 20 per cent — and only those of the middle to upper classes — of the approximately 7000 people buried in the church. In the same period, Britain established its empire by colonisation and was enriched by the trade in, and labour of, slaves; and therefore connections between people commemorated in the Abbey and this history are likely to be found.

The Rector, Canon Guy Bridgewater, said that the new exhibition — created in partnership with the University of West of England (UWE), Black in Bath Network, and the Bath Ethnic Minority Senior Citizens Association at Fairfield House — sought to explore and learn from the “guilty heritage” of the Abbey.

“Slavery should have no place in society and must be renounced utterly,” he said. “It is shameful that it was practised for so long, without effective challenge by Church or nation. At Bath Abbey, we deeply regret the hateful industry of human exploitation, whether by ignorant complicity or evil design, that certain of our 18th- and 19th-century memorials make evident.”

The final two panels of the exhibition depict images by the contemporary Black artist Manoel Akure, and set out the Abbey’s plans for work towards equality, anti-racism, and justice. Visitors are invited to say a prayer for racial equality at this point.

The learning officer at the Abbey, Polly Andrews, explained: “This exhibition is the beginning of a major reinterpretation of our monuments. By working with community partners, we want to get beneath the surface of what the monuments tell us and share and learn from the lives of the men and women who are remembered here and, more importantly, the history of those who are not.”

An accompanying panel discussion with audience is to take place on 25 June at 7.30 p.m. on Zoom. UWE and the Black in Bath Network will be represented, alongside a former Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Dr Alastair Redfern, who founded the Clewer Initiative, among others. Tickets are free and will be available online from Eventbrite.

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