Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge examines its own slave trade origins in ‘Black Atlantic’ exhibition
Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, founded using profits from the transatlantic slave trade, is shining a light on this aspect of its history in a new exhibition titled ‘Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance’.
Calling the exhibition “an important moment in the history of the Fitzwilliam”, the museum’s director, Luke Syson, said the concept emerged because “we are rethinking our shared histories to help us consider the ways we can contribute to a better, repaired world, in which principles of equity are enshrined.”
It explains how the museum was founded with a bequest from former Cambridge University student Viscount Richard Fitzwilliam, who died in 1816 aged 70. Viscount Fitzwilliam left a large sum of money and an art collection in his will, and the museum is named after him. Much of that wealth, and the art collection, was inherited from his grandfather Matthew Decker.
Decker was a prominent Dutch-born British merchant and financier who in 1700 helped to establish the South Sea Company, 1711-1853, which had exclusive rights to traffic enslaved African people to the Spanish colonial Americas. Cambridge’s most significant and direct financial involvement in Atlantic slavery was with the South Sea Company.
The exhibition reflects on these origins – the South Sea Company and features works made in West Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Europe.
Historic pieces will be exhibited in dialogue with works by modern and contemporary Black artists, including Donald Locke, Barbara Walker, Keith Piper, Alberta Whittle and Jacqueline Bishop.
The museum said that these “challenge and reflect on hidden and untold histories, and reveal acts of courage, resistance, hope and repair”.
The exhibition, presented in four sections, includes a rare loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands.
Jan Jansz Mostaert’s Portrait of an African Man, c.1525-30, is described as the earliest individual portrait of a black person in European art.
Also on display will be Portrait of a Man in a Red Suit, c.1740-80, which is being lent by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter.
This is a depiction of a black man at the height of the transatlantic slave trade and is hung next to the portrait of the Fitzwilliam’s founder also painted in the 18th century.
Mr Syson said: “Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance is an important moment in the history of the Fitzwilliam.
“Reflecting on the origins of our museum, the exhibition situates us within an enormous transatlantic story of exploitation and enslavement, one whose legacy is in many ways as pervasive and insidious today as it was in the 17th, 18th or 19th century.
“Our exhibition is greatly indebted to the contemporary artists whose work is featured.
“They have looked to the past to imagine a different future.
“By showing their works with significant historical objects, from Cambridge and leading institutions across Britain and elsewhere in Europe, we are rethinking our shared histories to help us consider the ways we can contribute to a better, repaired world, in which principles of equity are enshrined.”
Black Atlantic: Power, People, Resistance will run from September 8 to January 7.