Jumanah Younis checks out the opening night of the new exhibition at the Museum of London.
A new exhibition exposing the reality of human trafficking and forced labour in the capital has opened to the public this week at the Museum of London. The exhibition is the result of a partnership between the Museum of London and Anti-Slavery International; the world’s oldest human rights organisation. I went along to the opening on the 23rd August, which was scheduled to coincide with the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition – a hefty topic for any museum to take on, you would assume. And yet the exhibition stretches across all of…half a room. The Museum of London says that the exhibition is its first cross-site show, but the Museum of London Docklands is only displaying one piece in relation to the exhibition; a patchwork quilt made by survivors of trafficking.
Freedom From comprises a short introduction and an array of photographs showing some victims of human trafficking and other individuals working to try and combat the issue. The most significant feature of the exhibition for me is the map showing the various London boroughs, with details of individual cases of trafficking that have taken place in each area. Finding the place where you live and reading a case of sex trafficking that has happened near your house is truly horrifying. As you turn away from the map to a small facts wall, you have successfully reached the end of the exhibition. Not as comprehensive as you might have hoped.
The small show runs alongside another exhibition (situated in the other half of the same room) entitled ‘The Dispossessed’. This focuses on the London Evening Standard’s ‘Dispossessed Fund’; a campaign set up to encourage people to donate money to help alleviate poverty in Britain. The exhibition involves several photographs by Chris Steele-Perkins of people who the ‘Dispossessed Fund’ has helped. The first is a teenager who couldn’t afford the £19 required to submit a UCAS application and was set to miss out on the opportunity to go to university because of it (He was receiving just £50 a week in benefits, the typical amount for unemployed people under 25). A rallying cry of horror from Evening Standard readers, a rattle round of the collection tin and lucky Vincent was able to attend university after all.
The Deputy Mayor of London Richard Barnes, whose speech marked the opening of the Freedom From exhibition, seemed to be applauding this ‘big society’ approach. Of two things he thought people should do in relation to the eradication of human trafficking, the first was: “next time you see a police officer in the street, go and say hello!” As the news comes in of the third death during an arrest conducted by the police this week, you’d think the Deputy Mayor would understand some people’s reticence in striking up friendly conversation with the local bobby on the beat...
More problematically, Mr Barnes failed to address the government’s latest plans to remove visas for migrant domestic workers, limit stay to a one year maximum and tie migrant workers to an employer. How exactly does the Deputy Mayor see this fitting into the anti-trafficking campaign? As one domestic worker, and activist for Justice for Domestic Workers campaign, explained to me at the opening, if legal routes for working in the UK are tightened, migrant workers will be more vulnerable to human trafficking and will be more likely to be exploited once in the UK.
For an exhibition that has a fairly troubling message at its heart, the show is not as shocking as it could be. In fact, considering the fact that the government’s recent proposals on immigration and the rights of migrant workers have sparked concern among workers and activists about a return to systems of slavery, this exhibition manages to overlook some strikingly important developments. The Museum of London should be commended for raising awareness of the issue of human trafficking; but the finished show is unfortunately very narrow.
Freedom From: Modern Day Slavery in the Capital continues until 20th November 2011.