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Breaking down the barriers

10 June 2008 by Richard

Painting of a man's face on a wall

Frederick Douglass mural, Falls Road, Belfast. Text reads: ‘Frederick Douglas 1818-1895. Inspired by two Irishmen to escape from slavery Frederick Douglas came to Ireland during the famine. Henceforth he championed the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and Irish freedom.’

Hello there

As usual I have had a very interesting and varied past couple of weeks. I attended the ‘Closing of the Slave Trades: Transatlantic Perspectives’ conference at Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland , co-sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale University. It was attended by museum professionals, public historians, and scholars from a variety of disciplines and institutions.  My talk focused on Phase 2 of the International Slavery Museum and the opening of the Research and Resource centre.

Even though Belfast City Centre is like many other lively European capital cities, with its grand historic buildings and trendy high street shops it is still a deeply divided city in many respects. This was highlighted when we went on a taxi tour of some of the political murals near the Falls Road, which is a largely nationalist and Catholic area. One of the murals depicted the great African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I, like many people from the UK, was brought up on news of the ‘Troubles’ and was happy to see the Northern Ireland peace process progress. But the remembrance gardens, the tone of the murals and most shocking for me, the imposing corrugated iron wall, often called the Peace Line, that divides large swathes of Protestant and Catholic Belfast shows there is still a long way to go before the city is free from sectarianism and intolerance.

There is also a big link, in fact a Titanic one (I could not resist!), between Belfast and Liverpool.  The Titanic was built at Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast and even though she never berthed at Liverpool she was owned by White Star Line of Liverpool. Visit the Titanic, Lusitania and the Forgotten Empress gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum for more information.

Another important aspect of my job is that of supporting local organizations in various campaigns against forms of injustice, inequality and indeed intolerance.  Along with a colleague I attended the Anthony Walker Foundation Festival 2008 event at Hope University. The International Slavery Museum had a stand there with information about the museum.  It was a lively and indeed poignant event. I watched a number of rappers perform very loud (do I sound old?) but meaningful performances. The aim of the event was to bring young people together from all backgrounds and to focus on positive messages. I only have the utmost respect for the Walker family, who out of the tragic loss of a son and brother has managed to start a movement which promotes togetherness rather than division.  Truly admirable.

Watch this space.

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