Australian Journal of Biography and History
The Australian National University
School of Arts and Humanities
Within museums, interpretation and curation have increasingly employed personal stories and intimate storytelling to present broader narratives about the past. This article explores some of the opportunities and challenges of biographical storytelling in museums and public sites of memory that engage with the issue of slavery, analysing Australian exhibitions alongside international contexts and theories of museology, historiography and memory. It will look at representations of historical and modern slavery in Australia, as well as global representations of the transatlantic slave trade and other traumatic histories such as the Holocaust. The discussion explores the potential for personal counter-narratives, the reimagining of silenced voices, the capacity for emotional and affective learning, and healing. The essay also investigates the challenges of retracing past lives, the potential limits of empathy, and the politics of ownership when telling stories about the past. This research is part of a project exploring the legacies of slavery in Australia and developing an online exhibition as one of its outputs, for which this ‘biographical turn’ is significant. Much of the project’s research to date has been biographical, investigating the lives of individual slavers and colonists—and drawing connections between them, their businesses, politics, families and the British Empire—to explore colonial and racial frameworks still underpinning contemporary Australia. For the exhibition, we are investigating ways of expanding the scope to represent the lives and experiences of enslaved individuals.
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