Remembering to forget

17 May 2013 by Richard

The image shows the railings and the remains of the Auscwitz ii concentration camp

Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp near the Polish town of Oświęcim

On Wednesday I gave a talk for the West Derby Society at the very grand Lowlands built in 1846.  The taxi driver, on being told what I did for a living, said something along the lines of ‘great museum, but not everyone in Liverpool supported and profited from slavery.’  I explained that we don’t say that, we talk about Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and of course we focus on Liverpool, it is after all where we are located, Liverpool took the trade to a new level, there were over 5,000 slave voyages made from the port plus several other  facts. I also pointed out that new research is shedding light on the diverse range of people (plantation owners/profiteers not the enslaved) that were awarded compensation under the 1833 Abolition Act (there was a Slave Compensation Commission) which shows that it was not just MP’s or the well-known merchant families but regular business folk too who profited from the enslavement of Africans. 

The conversation made me realize what aspects of history people often prioritize or remember, and indeed what they might remember to forget.  It was a timely thought as I have been carrying out some research on historical consciousness – how people view the past – mass inertia and the manipulation of the past, whether it be by governments or the public in places and locations which have been affected by terror and trauma such as World War II landscapes (concentration camps,  extermination centres, buildings used by the SS) and sites of genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans to name a few.

An article  by the archaeologist Paul Mullins (who I first met during my PhD research on African American archaeology at Ransom Place in Indianapolis) on WWII landscapes in Finland, particularly Oulu which was occupied by the Nazis,  succinctly sums up some of the ways of remembering and forgetting: Some communities have chosen to efface Nazi materiality as thoroughly as possible; others have aspired to leave it an “open wound”; and many more chart a middle ground.

The next CSIS seminar on the 21st May by Joanna Ewart-James (Anti-Slavery International) focuses on the Staff Wanted Initiative: hotels’ responsibility to respect human rights and reduce workers’ vulnerability to exploitation, trafficking and forced labour and on 12th June ISM is hosting an innovative workshop in partnership with the University of Liverpool on the benefits of implementing organizational change to combat human trafficking.

Bye for now,

  1. Stephen Guy says:

    Thank you for your excellent talk and mention on the blog Richard. West Derby Society members were left with much to talk about.

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