The beautiful hinterland of Hull’s only twin city is rich in flora and fauna, cultural traditions and built heritage. Yet we often only ever hear about Sierra Leone in the context of British antislavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, or with reference to the civil war that engulfed the country for several decades at the end of the 20th century,
Museums throughout the world, and especially in the UK, are assessing their collections, the way they display them and the way they are interpreted. This decision that has generated wide-ranging views that have spilled out into the political arena. Many aspects of the country’s collections and the way they were displayed and interpreted had been defined by our past, especially our colonial thinking and as National Museums Scotland put it:
“Our actions that were based on racial and racist understandings of the world.”
Their commitment continues: “in undertaking this work, we will consult and collaborate with those communities for whom our objects have special relevance”. That is what one museum much closer to home has just done.
Homelands photography exhibition
A free photography exhibition ‘Homelands’ examining the shared homelands of British service personnel and Sierra Leonian people during the upheaval of the Second World War opened at the Streetlife Museum in Hull on Saturday 1 October. It is part of Black History Month, which is observed every October.
Wartime photography by Corporal Fred Birden has been selected and reinterpreted by local members of the Hull Afro Caribbean Association who were either born, lived or worked in West Africa. Their insights bringing a fresh dimension to an important privately owned collection of photographs of Sierra Leone just prior to decolonisation from Britain.
The project forms part of ongoing work between the Hull Afro Caribbean Association, Hull Museums and the University of Hull to increase the visibility of Hull’s African-Caribbean community.
Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, has been Hull’s twinned city for more than 40 years. The country remained a British colony throughout the Second World War and played a critical role in supporting the Allies throughout the conflict.
Siddi Maju, who played a leading role in community consultation events said:
“The sights, sounds and excitement of life in Sierra Leone make it a very special place that is close to my heart.
“My homeland, Salone as we all call it, may be far away. But when I first visited in Hull in 2007, as part of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade, I could see its capital of Freetown was important to the people of Hull. This made me smile! The Hull Afro Caribbean Association, of which I am a member, is very proud to have worked with the University of Hull and Hull Museums to create an exhibition that showcases to people living in Yorkshire the rich history and cultural traditions of West Africa.”
Challenging perceptions of Sierra Leone
Dr Nicholas Evans is Senior Lecturer in diaspora history at the Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, and helped to organise the exhibition. He said: “In conceiving this exhibition, we wanted to challenge local perceptions of Freetown in Sierra Leone.”
Dr Evans continued:
“The beautiful hinterland of Hull’s only twin city is rich in flora and fauna, cultural traditions and built heritage. Yet we often only ever hear about Sierra Leone in the context of British antislavery in the 18th and 19th centuries, with reference to the civil war that engulfed the country for several decades at the end of the 20th century, or because of the disastrous Ebola disease pandemic in the last decade.
“Our exhibition reveals less well-known aspects of the rich and vibrant history of Sierra Leone captured in hundreds of photographs by Fred Birden during the Second World War. The images are an important lens through which to view the story of Sierra Leone and its people, taken at a time when Hull was being bombed during the blitz.”
The exhibition, which runs until 31 October, has been funded by Hull Museums through support from Arts Council England and the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull. Alongside Fred’s photographs, local communities have also contributed displays of objects reflecting the themes of the exhibition, including items from the Hull Afro Caribbean Association, Freetown Society, Judith Harrison and the Wilberforce Institute.