Skip to main content

Slavery and its Cultural Legacies


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor and tutor: Dr Sarah Thomas
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

In 2007 Britain commemorated the bicentenary of the abolition of its slave trade with a series of exhibitions and events across the country. Often criticised for privileging a narrative of Britain’s benevolence and redemption over its leading role in sustaining a brutal political system, debates around slavery and its abolition have nevertheless remained in public consciousness. Works of art (whether statues of slave traders or slave owners, or Confederate generals in the United States) have gained attention as lightning rods for often heated and bitter debates about slavery’s history. Museums (like universities) are starting to acknowledge and seek to further understand their institutional debt to this history. The role of slave-owners in the early history of British art museums, for example, is currently being scrutinised.

This module considers how the enslaved and slavery itself have been, and continue to be, represented both by artists and curators, not only in Britain and the United States but in former sites of colonisation too - the Caribbean and Brazil. It explores why slavery’s cultural legacies have remained hidden for so long, and why these continue to remain so fiercely contested.

Indicative syllabus

  • Transatlantic slavery
  • Slavery and visual culture
  • Art and abolition
  • The cultural impact of slave-owners
  • Museums and slavery 1: narratives, objects, meaning
  • Field trip - Museum of London, Docklands: London, Sugar and Slavery
  • Museums and slavery 2: engaging new publics
  • The potency of statues
  • Slavery in the contemporary imagination

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will have:

  • developed acuity in observing visual and material culture
  • enhanced understanding of this culture within the historical and political context of its production
  • knowledge of methodologies concerned with the discipline
  • engaged constructively in current debates concerning the discipline and its changing nature.