News | November 25, 2022

British Empire Exhibition Features The Slave Bible

Bodleian Libraries

The Bodleian Libraries has partnered with the Museum of Colour (MoC), and Fusion Arts to curate These Things Matter: Empire, Exploitation and Everyday Racism, a startling new exhibition exploring the devastating and long term effects of the British Empire.

Available globally through the MoC's digital platform and in-person in Blackwell Hall at the Weston Library, Oxford, from Thursday 17 November 2022, These Things Matter shows how everyday communications maintained the British Empire and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Maps, letters and even The Bible were edited deliberately to manipulate millions of people and to justify the value of trading African bodies.

These Things Matter is the brainchild of Samenua Sesher, founder of the Museum of Colour. This one-of-a-kind exhibition challenges visitors to consider new perspectives on a perilous time in our history.

The exhibition will, for the first time, feature selected artefacts from the Bodleian Libraries' colonial collections. The inclusion of these artefacts allows visitors to understand how they were used to dehumanise people of colour in order to oppress them over several centuries.

Seven artists selected by the MoC and Oxford-based charity Fusion Arts will interpret the items through sound, art installations and digital displays for a modern audience. This one-of-a-kind exhibition signals a new way of working within the culture and heritage sector, where large-scale, traditional organisations work alongside nimble micro-partners to co-curate fresh and accessible visitor experiences.

The exhibition features seven contemporary artists, one for each of the six artefacts featured and one reflecting on the entire display. These artists are Bunmi Ogunsiji, Grace Lee, Amina Atiq, Dirty Freud, Nilupa Yasmin, Mahdy Abo Bahat and Johannah Latchem.

Each piece looks at the artefact through a 21st century lens, offering a raw and, at times, brutal illustration of the artist’s personal response to it. It conveys how it made them feel, and how they see its intended purpose and human impact. Collectively, the experience takes visitors on a unique journey, forcing them to recognise the simple tools used to exploit and uphold systemic racism.

Sesher was motivated to bring awareness to such conscious acts of manipulation when she discovered what is known as The Slave Bible – an adapted version of the Holy Bible. The edits were made with the intention that slaves who were allowed to read would have no notion of their right to be free, or thoughts of rebellion. The Bible is held in the Bodleian’s collections and is a key feature of the exhibition.

Samenua Sesher said: "Museum of Colour and the Bodleian were looking at how to build on our work together on MoC’s pilot exhibition, People of Letters. So, when I learnt about the 'Slave Bible', and that the Bodleian held a copy, I realised that we had the makings of a really compelling exhibition. Reading about how it was used made me want to explore the quiet but pernicious behaviours that hold barbaric structures in place. This exhibition will highlight the less-discussed but conscious emotional manipulation in items like books and maps. Our co-curative process enabled us all to see the legacies in our societies today: the ongoing manipulation which makes some people think they are better than others and convinces other people that they are less."

Antony Brewerton, Director of Academic Library Services, said: "The Bodleian Libraries is honoured to partner with the Museum of Colour and Fusion Arts for such an important exhibition. Throughout history, words and other mediums have been used to manipulate society and achieve certain outcomes, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade was no different. It is important that people know that and I am proud that the Bodleian is able to host such a necessary experience.

Kieran Cox, Artistic Director of Fusion Arts, said: "These Things Matter is a unique and extremely impactful exhibition. It has been a privilege to partner with Museum of Colour and The Bodleian Libraries on such an important and powerful piece of work. Collaborating with the artists and the community to support the creation of These Things Matter has been fascinating, humbling and remarkable experience.

"I specifically want to highlight and give gratitude to all the artists who have engaged with the artefacts and objects with such deep care, responsibility and generosity. The content of these documents evokes such strong and raw emotions that not only speak to the atrocious emotional control, repression and violence of the past but also to the present day everyday experience."

These Things Matter is at the Weston Library and on running until February 2023.