Slavery, an always sensitive subject for museums


The image of Normandy is associated with the impressionist painters, we know less that it was the second port of exit of the slave ships in France, after Nantes. « More than 500 shipments left Normandy ports for the 18th century alone.e century. Bordeaux and La Rochelle equipped fewer boats for the slave trade than Le Havre and Honfleur combined! And this activity continued for more than three hundred years,” says historian Éric Saunier, scientific curator of “Slavery, Norman Memories”.

Spread over three sites, in Le Havre and Rouen (Seine-Maritime) and Honfleur (Calvados), the exhibition aims to fill the gaps in collective memory, in the wake of the work undertaken by the cities of the Atlantic seaboard for several decades. Under pressure from historians and local associations, Nantes was the first to look its past in the face and to organize landmark events: an international symposium on slavery from 1985 and the exhibition « The Rings of Memory in 1992.

The History Museum, created in 2007, devotes no less than nine rooms to the Atlantic slave trade, updated every two years, to follow the progress of research. “This story, which fell into a form of denial on a national scale, did not even appear in school curricula before the Taubira law was passed in 2001, remembers director Krystel Gualdé. When we opened the museum, visitors were startled to discover the existence of the “black code” (who regulated slavery in 1685, editor’s note). Some didn’t want to believe it. »

This memory work has also made its way to La Rochelle and Bordeaux, where museums have taken up this theme, the Musée d’Aquitaine even extending it to slavery in the United States and the civil rights movement. Booklets and guided tours allow you to walk in the footsteps of the triangular trade in the city center, where the streets bearing the names of shipowners are now equipped with explanatory plaques.

Slower awareness in Normandy

In Normandy, the memorial process was more discreet. In Le Havre, for example, it boiled down to a commemorative plaque on the quays, devices addressed to schoolchildren and annual participation in the May 10 ceremonies. Éric Saunier offers three explanations for this  » delay «  : the 1944 bombings which, by destroying the houses of the shipowners, erased the vestiges, the relatively late creation of the University of Le Havre-Normandy (1984) and the difficulty of associating Normandy, a rural and industrial land, with the Atlantic and Overseas.

Synthesis of current knowledge, the triple exhibition retraces as much the history « from above », that of the merchants and shipowners, as that « from below », that of the convicts of the sea and the captives sent to the « islands ». sugar”. Unpublished research has made it possible to reconstruct the journey of several slaves to « not to reproduce the relations of domination by erasing them from the narrative, for lack of documents »underlines Guillaume Gaillard, general curator of the exhibition and director of the promotion of the heritage of Le Havre.

A necessary work on the language

Each word has therefore been weighed: « Atlantic Treaty » has been substituted for  » Slave Trade «  and derogatory terms  » Black « , « nigger » And « slave » present in historical sources are written in quotation marks or in italics. « Some associations consider that we are taking too many precautions, but this terminology will prevail in the years to come », assures Guillaume Gaillard.

The Nantes History Museum goes further in its thinking: the formula « enslaved person » replaced  » slave «  in order to « not to reduce the individual to his status ». The institution has also set itself the task of « decolonize his thought and his imagination » through an annual event entitled “Decolonial Expression(s)”.

Interventions by contemporary artists and historians from the African continent allow us to take another look at the collections, made up mainly of objects produced by those involved in the slave trade and slavery. This year, the works of Barthélémy Toguo give them a very contemporary resonance, with Black Lives Always Matter (2015), ten portraits of young African-Americans who died during their arrest in the United States.


Exhibitions all over France

“Slavery, Norman Memories” until November 10 at the Dubocage de Bléville hotel (in Le Havre), at the Corderie Vallois (in Rouen) and at the Eugène-Boudin Museum (in Honfleur).

“Decolonial expression(s)” until November 12 at the Nantes History Museum.

The Louvre has planned for the fall of 2024 to honor the little-known painter Guillaume Guillon-Lethière (1760-1832), a half-breed from Guadeloupe. The opportunity to return to slavery and the diaspora.


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