A revolutionary legacy: Haiti and Toussaint Louverture, Room 3, British Museum, 22 February – 22 April 2018
Room Three of the British Museum is the first exhibition space that visitors encounter as they enter the building. More an alcove than a room, it is - as the Museum staff says, "a unique space. Its compact size and separation from other galleries makes it suitable for temporary exhibitions which focus on particular pieces, rather than entire cultures or geographical areas." It is also easily missed, requiring a sharp turn to the right against the flow of bodies moving towards the Great Court whose brightly lit, monumental space draws the eye upwards and the visitor forwards. Since 2005, it has been the site of the Asahi Shimbun Displays whose purpose is both to showcase individual objects and to "act as a testing ground for innovation in design and interpretation." Unlike previous displays built around particular things - a Sikh fortress turban, a Sudanese lyre - the current Haiti exhibition aims at something grander: 7000 years of history in a jumble of objects and a wall-sized timeline.
In the process it demonstrates for visitors rather more than it perhaps intended: that most of the material history of revolutionary Haiti is scattered around the globe and buried in the archives, institutions, and private collections of the Atlantic powers that vied – and vie - for dominance of the Caribbean. And that those institutions still don't know what to make of Haiti or how to talk about it without – in Trouillot’s famous formulation - silencing the past.
Dominating the space and used as the exhibition's brand image is Jacob Lawrence’s 1938 portrait, 'The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.' To its left, a Vodou boula drum seized by US Marines during the occupation, donated to the Museum by a Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army in 1930, and on display for the first time. The Museum’s website provides a deft double-handed interpretation of the drum, elaborating its religious function and significance, while simultaneously using it to “illuminate the interlinked histories of Vodou, US imperialism and museum collecting during this era.” There is not room for that, however, in Room 3. Instead, beneath these two artifacts that could speak together about Haiti’s crucial role in the American Imperium and the Harlem Renaissance, there is a carefully framed and labeled conglomeration of tangentially related things - a sort of free style object association game with the museum’s holdings that lurches through space and time. A Senegalese coin commemorating the abolition of slavery with Louverture’s face stamped upon it. A contemporary Haitian banknote with a portrait of Sanité Belair. A copy of CLR James' ‘Black Jacobins.’ Is the display about the revolutionary legacy of Haiti, or Haiti in the American twentieth-century imagination, or Louverture as a revolutionary trope for global black nationalism? The rest of the central display does not answer these questions, but instead raises more.
To the left, a set of images of Louverture drawn from (and with) European imagination and a portrait previously misidentified as Louverture, but now presumed to be the son of Henry Christophe - whose first name is rendered 'Henri' elsewhere in the room. They are balanced to the right with a series of mounted pages from William Blake’s ‘America: A Prophecy’ – “surely informed,” the display hopefully claims, “by recent uprisings of enslaved men and women in Saint-Domingue and elsewhere” though nominally about the United States. Next to it, a hand-coloured relief etching from Blake’s ‘The Little Black Boy,’ which again, has to have a lot of heavy lifting done to torture it into relevance. “Blake’s ideas about skin colour,” the text reads, “may be compared to those of the Haitian revolutionaries.” They may indeed, but whether they should be in a space of this limited size is a much better question. The room’s jarringly keen interest in William Blake does not end there. “Transcriptions of Blake’s poems are available on the bench behind you,” we are told. In a remarkable feat of poor optics, ‘The Complete Illuminated Books’ is indeed literally chained to the bench, tangled in the chain that binds Gina Athena Ulysse’s ‘Because When God is Too Busy,’ both of them knotted in the lead of the headphones with which one can listen to Ulysse’s 2006 audio montage that explores “the complex and often misrepresented histories of Haiti, where she was born.” Ulysse's work - both on the page and in the ear - is characteristically moving, shocking, exhilarating and transcendent. Listening to it while paging through Blake? I tried it so that you don’t have to. Do not recommend. Watch her perform in the space instead.
From the bench, one can pause from contemplating the utter irrelevance of Blake and look instead at the timeline of Haiti’s history painted on the wall. It begins in 5000 BCE and ends in the present, 7000 years of history compressed into a vertical space of five feet. For an assessment of its inadequacies and the inadequacies of the exhibition in general, I’ll give the final word to Dr. Nicole Willson, who commented on twitter: “So, so much silence and erasure. But that replicates patterns across the BM as a whole. No real surprise there. I had just really hoped they might make it into something meaningful. I’m so disappointed. We have seriously failed to decolonise the mind.”