Prompted by the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Black Atlantic exhibition, a Collections-Connections-Communities collaboration with Global Humanities Network brought four researchers from Caribbean institutions to Cambridge. They spent a week of cross-faculty discussions around “Caribbean & Cambridge Collections: Collaborative Research Futures”, in December 2023. Given the colonial context to the accumulation of many collections in Cambridge, we sought to explore future possibilities around modes of reparation.

  • Marsha Pearce (Lecturer in Visual Arts, University of the West Indies)
  • Alissandra Cummins (Director, Barbados Museum & Historical Society)
  • Christelle Lozère (Professor of Art History, l’Université des Antilles)
  • Susana Guimarães (Curator of Archaeology, Musee d’archéologie amérindienne Edgar Clerc, Guadeloupe)

The researchers spent time across the humanities and science collections, at the Fitzwilliam MuseumMuseum of Archaeology & AnthropologyUniversity LibraryHerbariumKettle’s YardSedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and the Museum of Zoology. We also consulted collections in the Wren Library of Trinity College. Round-table discussions with academics across Cambridge focused upon teaching, community participation, contemporary art, exhibitions on the Legacies of Empire and Enslavement, and the need to resist closure.

Samples and archives from the Caribbean, housed in the Herbarium. Photograph: Neal Spencer

Samples and archives from the Caribbean, housed in the Herbarium. Photograph: Neal Spencer

Modes of constraint and absence were highlighted in how collections have been formed and continue to be used:

  • Caribbean museums emerged out of colonial surveys (natural world, indigenous cultures) but are pivoting to be places of identity for communities;
  • Expectations differ between curators and audiences in Europe/Caribbean in terms of including and exhibiting objects evoking trauma and exploitation;
  • The limited present-day circulation of material and visual culture between Caribbean islands was noted;
  • Bilateral collaboration (e.g. between UK and ‘anglophone’ islands) remains dominant, though initiatives such as Tilting Axis have foregrounded an intra-regional approach to contemporary art;
  • There is an absence of awareness around Amerindian visual and material cultures, both in the UK and Caribbean;
  • The impact of indentureship is underplayed in research, public discourse and awareness;
  • Art history curricula in the UK typically ignore the role of historic artists trained, or practising, in the Caribbean.
  • Very limited facilities for technical art history, e.g. materials analysis laboratories, exist in the region;
  • Legal and economic frameworks, and the role of the Church, remain understudied in collections research around the legacies of enslavement;
  • Student demand for teaching Caribbean subjects is high, but Cambridge expertise in history, literature, visual cultures remains to be cohered and better connected to Caribbean institutions.

Yet these collections provide the foundations for critical questions and new approaches, particularly through projects that:

  • Enable ways into digital research resources held in Cambridge, and raising awareness of the potential of collections;
  • Address the key foci for CARICOM in terms of reparation: education, infrastructure, indigenous peoples development programmes and healthcare (including psychological rehabilitation);
  • Are ‘unruly’, ‘trouble the borders’, ‘creole’ and ‘syncretic’;
  • Creatively animate collections and archives to activate memories. Can archive and documentation teams draw upon the lived experience of communities invoked in the archives?
  • Explore a Caribbean Studies postgraduate programme grounded in collections.

We are now exploring mechanisms to develop collaborations, including around collaborative displays, PhD studentships, teaching initiatives and community initiatives.

Collections Connections Communities Strategic Research Initiative

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Collections Connections Communities

Welcome to the Collections Connections Communities Strategic Research Initiative