By Charlotte Juul Olsson, Ditte Nikolajsen Volfbrandt and Lasse Ringø Hansen
On a cold sunny day in the beginning of March we visited the exhibition Stop Slaveri! at the Workers Museum in Copenhagen. The exhibition took us on a chronological tour towards today’ slavery through slavery in history. More particularly through stories and experiences of Denmark as a colonial power and a slave nation told by the enslaved themselves.
We quickly realised that the exhibition played with our ignorance by turning the dominating power relations of slavery upside down. We were confronted with different forms of resistance from history and in the exhibition itself; Hamilton Jackson and Queen Mary is portrayed as key figures in resistance movements and in the abolition of slavery in the former Danish West Indies, and the term The Triangular Slave Trade is crossed over and changed to Human Trafficking. This functioned as a reminder that there has always been resistance and interventions – and that change is carried out by exactly that.
Reenactment of the slave owner
Walking through a dark and gloomy hallway we could see the chair rising at the very end of it. The chair represents a planter’s resting spot where he could have his shoes cleaned by one of his enslaved. On a sign the exhibition invites us to take a seat in the chair by imposing the question; ‘How does it feel to sit in the planter’s chair?’ The chair is lifted from the floor – it became a throne. It was a throne. Standing in front of it, looking at it from different angles. No one moved. Do we dare to re-enact a scene which houses an oppressive act? Revulsion of the potential lust/act of sitting on the throne, which has the screams from the past chained to its wooden body. We froze by this invitation. Would it be immoral to place ourselves in that same privileged seat of a former slave owner? Would our character do any harm by doing so?
Nonetheless one of the bloggers dares to look the fear straight in the eyes and jumps up on the throne and puts up his boots. We talk about how the chair confronts us with a hierarchy of power that we seldom associate ourselves with because it is thought of as belonging to the past. This thought was further deepened when we passed a wall with the words of the Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen; ‘It was a shameful time, but it is a closed chapter and behind us.’
The last room confronted us with exactly the opposite – slavery is not over. The room exploded with presentations of all sorts of contemporary slavery. The different forms of slavery were put into examples of a Danish context such as exploitation of migrants without papers forced to do manual labour without contracts, over forced child labour through adoption to human trafficking.
By exposing us to various kinds of Danish slavery, the exhibition pushes the sometimes quite abstract idea of slavery to cross into the private sphere by showing the concept as a personal matter. It presents different initiatives for us as visitors to engage in the fight against modern slavery and by this the exhibition challenges the words of Lars Løkke.
We are no oppressive slave owner, since we could never do what he did. We could never sit in his chair with a clean conscience. But we do wear the clothes made by enslaved people today. The horror of slavery is still a real fact of life which breath in the neck is nauseating. The breath we feel through the clothing brand we wear.