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‘The Matter of Slavery in Scotland’ was a collaborative research project with the University of Edinburgh which explored the history and legacy of Scotland’s connections with the transatlantic slave system through objects in public collections.

The project (2018-19) considered historic and contemporary objects, together with buildings, monuments and paintings to identify and explore layered and often conflicting stories of Scotland’s slavery past. Leaping across time periods, the role of that past in shaping the country today was an important focus. Below are some of the objects examined through the project:

  • Archibald McLauchlan, John Glassford and his Family © CSG CIC.

    Archibald McLauchlan, John Glassford and his Family © CSG CIC.
  • Graham Fagen, still from ‘The Slave’s Lament’ © Graham Fagen.

    Graham Fagen, still from ‘The Slave’s Lament’ © Graham Fagen.
  • Rectangular mahogany box with silver mounts, used to contain a silver sugar bowl and pair of tea bottles: English, London, by M.I., 1762. National Museums Scotland, A.1979.502 F.

    Rectangular mahogany box with silver mounts, used to contain a silver sugar bowl and pair of tea bottles: English, London, by M.I., 1762. National Museums Scotland, A.1979.502 F.
  • Dr Jonathan Troup’s Dominican diary, 1788-1790 © University of Aberdeen.

    Dr Jonathan Troup’s Dominican diary, 1788-1790 © University of Aberdeen.
  • Melville Monument, St Andrews Square, Edinburgh.

    Melville Monument, St Andrews Square, Edinburgh.
  • Porcelain teacup with poetry extract, from The Empire Café. At the pop up café in Glasgow, during the Commonwealth Games in 2014, visitors discussed new understandings of Scotland’s slavery past over the products of empire. National Museums Scotland, X.2017.89.4.

    Porcelain teacup with poetry extract, from The Empire Café. At the pop up café in Glasgow, during the Commonwealth Games in 2014, visitors discussed new understandings of Scotland’s slavery past over the products of empire. National Museums Scotland, X.2017.89.4.
  • Metal object said to have been used for branding the skin of enslaved people in the West Indies, c.18th-19th century. National Museums Scotland, H.NN 12.

    Metal object said to have been used for branding the skin of enslaved people in the West Indies, c.18th-19th century. National Museums Scotland, H.NN 12.
  • Sir William Allan, The Slave Market, Constantinople © National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 1980.

    Sir William Allan, The Slave Market, Constantinople © National Galleries of Scotland. Purchased 1980.
  • Copper wash still, originally coal fired, manufactured in Glasgow in the 1960s. This object is similar in size and construction to those exported from Britain to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century. National Museums Scotland, T.1996.259.

    Copper wash still, originally coal fired, manufactured in Glasgow in the 1960s. This object is similar in size and construction to those exported from Britain to the Caribbean in the eighteenth century. National Museums Scotland, T.1996.259.
  • Full-sized set of Highland bagpipes with drones turned in cocus wood, 18th century. Cocus wood – a material grown in the Caribbean and inextricably bound with slavery – was often used in bagpipes because of its tonal qualities (K.1998.1130)

    Full-sized set of Highland bagpipes with drones turned in cocus wood, 18th century. Cocus wood – a material grown in the Caribbean and inextricably bound with slavery – was often used in bagpipes because of its tonal qualities (K.1998.1130)

Through a collaborative approach, the project brought together curators, researchers, teachers and activists, forming a network of knowledge and different perspectives to throw new light on existing collections.

By deepening understandings of slavery through material culture, this inter-disciplinary group forged new methods of researching, interpreting and displaying this history and its legacies. The relationships built and the knowledge uncovered continues to inform our work behind the scenes on the topics of slavery, empire and colonialism.

Updated displays at the National Museum of Scotland include:

Empire Café tea set: Hawthornden Court, Level 1

The addition of the Empire Café tea set to an existing display on Scottish involvement in slavery, to highlight the ongoing legacy of and conversation about Scotland’s slavery past.

Trade and tobacco: Scotland Transformed, Level 3

A display on trade and tobacco now includes slavery-related objects and highlights the centrality of enslaved people and their labour to the development of the Scottish economy during the 18th century. 

 

The ‘Matter of Slavery in Scotland’ was supported by a Research Network Grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It was led by Professor Nuala Zahedieh, University of Edinburgh (Principal Investigator) and Dr Sarah Laurenson, National Museums Scotland (Co-Investigator).


Past events

The Matter of Slavery

Thursday 6 June 2019 
18:30–19:45
Auditorium, Level 1, National Museum of Scotland
Free, ticketed

This event explored the history and legacy of the transatlantic slave trade through objects in museums, galleries and historic houses.

Material Technologies of Empire: Tobacco, Textiles & Race in Everyday Scottish Life, c. 1660-1820

Friday 26 April 2019
17:30-18:30
Meadows Lecture Theatre, William Robertson Wing, Doorway 4, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, EH8 9AG
Free

Professor Beverley Lemire (University of Alberta) gave the second of two public lectures relating to The Matter of Slavery in Scotland project.

From rainforest to parlour: Revealing the history of slavery in mahogany furniture

Friday 7 December 2018
17:30-18:30
Meadows Lecture Theatre, William Robertson Wing, Doorway 4, Old Medical School, Teviot Place, EH8 9AG
Free

Professor Jennifer Anderson (Stony Brook, New York) gave the first public lecture for The Matter of Slavery in Scotland project, in collaboration with National Museums Scotland. 

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