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Lost Vitrines A Proposal from Keith Piper for ‘Uncomfortable Truths’ at the V&A

A key and reoccurring feature of the British Galleries within the Victoria and Albert Museum is the display of antique and period books positioned on various book stands, both within glass cases and open plinths. These books are often open on pages which display illustrations of intricate decorative and design objects, sketches of sites, written observations and instructions and other research and informational material. They all combine to reinforce the sense of an epoch within which attention to detail, meticulous research and an engaged sense of intellectual enquiry could be seen to underpin the development of British aesthetic, intellectual and industrial culture through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


I would like to propose a project which parodies the aesthetics of display and assumed hierarchies of knowledge around which these book-based exhibits function. In a series of interventions, I would like to propose producing and displaying a series of books and other small ephemeral objects which speak to the gaps and absences within the existing historical displays, specifically around the functioning of the Slave Trade and Plantation System. These books and related objects would employ humour and parody, faithfully taking on the material appearance of antique and period objects and revealing their true subversive intent only upon close inspection. They will be grouped around two fictional sets of authors and projected audiences, both of which were key constituencies within the historical epochs recorded in the Museum Galleries and were principal generators of the wealth which produced the Museum objects currently on display. One set of books and objects will come from a fictional set of English Slave Traders and Plantation Owners and be laid out in one vitrine. The other set of books and objects will come from a fictional rebellious Slave community and be positioned in another vitrine.

The Slave Trader & Plantation books will take on the appearance of the grand engraved antique volumes displayed in the galleries which display beautifully rendered details of craft, industrial and architectural objects. However, the intricate engravings in these ‘faux’ books will display images such as; diagrams indicating the correct sequence in which manacles should be fitted to a captives’ ankles; the intricate leather patterning on whip handles, the architectural detailing on slave huts, holding-pens and auction blocks etc. Other type museum objects such as displayed books of fabric and colour swatches could also be fabricated. However on close inspection the text references would speak of slave work garments,


or grades of slave produced cotton. In the case of the colour swatches, the mythologies which surrounded the correlations between slave complexions and their suitability for particular types of labour could be referenced.

Other contemporaneous debates, such the discussion around the ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ packing of Slave ships could be parodied through the creation of antique pseudo-scientific charts, tables, diagrams and measuring devices computing the relative efficiencies of competing trade transportation systems.

The central aim of these parodies will be to point towards Slave holding systems as being as much a product of eighteenth and nineteenth century English ‘enlightenment’ and systematic materialism as are the decorative objects of ‘high culture’ which adorn the museum. They will also point however to the growing absurdity and un-sustainability of slave holding systems which would eventually render them archaic in economic terms and therefore ripe for abolition by the early part of the nineteenth century. This theme will be taken up by the second set of Books and objects, these ones coming from fictionalised rebellious slaves. In classic studies such as Eric Williams ‘Capitalism and Slavery’ we are given a detailed account of how slave economies would eventually become expensive, archaic and counter productive parts of the global capitalist system. This state of affairs was arrived at in no small measure due to the constant efforts of slave populations to resist, rebel against and sabotage the slave economies which held them captive. It was this constant disruption which hampered the industrial and technological development of plantation societies, and would lead to their inevitable abolition in favour of wage labour systems. I propose to parody these developments through the production of antique books, pamphlets and other small objects, which once again reproduce the aesthetic appearance of museum artefacts, but were produced by members of a fictional rebellious slave community. These books would take the form of, for example, richly illustrated instruction manuals for the sabotage of industrial plant and machinery. Taking period engravings of the types of steam milling engines being supplied to plantations in the Caribbean by companies such as Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, equally


intricate additions to the diagrams will show points of weakness, methods of sabotage and destruction etc, as well as purchase value and scrap value of the machine. This will parody the very real history of slave sabotage of the expensive machineries of the newly developing industrial revolution, which hampered the investment in such machines by the Plantocracy. It is telling that amongst the most vocal abolitionists were the new industrialists such as Matthew Boulton and James Watt who understood the importance of moving to the more stable labour conditions of a post-slavery Caribbean as being essential to the export of their new industrial machines into those economies. Other, smaller act of rebellion and resistance on the part of slaves could also be referenced. For instance, in a parody of one of the Victorian sowing boxes currently on display in the V&A, I would fabricate a ‘daily small act of resistance’ kit. Based on the history of slaves carrying out quiet acts of subversion such as spitting into glasses of drinking water and handing them to the plantation owners to drink (e.g. referenced in Alex Haley’s book ‘Roots’ and others), I would present an ornate timber box containing small bottles of various fluids and written instructions. On closer inspection of the labels the viewer would realise that the fluids contained were saliva, phlegm and other bodily excretions. Small instruction labels would be attached to each bottle carefully outlining the methodologies for adding each substance to drinks, meals and other things consumed by the plantation owner when symbolic acts of resistance and rebellion were called for.

It would be my intention, that these and other books and objects would be displayed within the gallery space, either together within glass cases or on open tables/plinths or scattered around the gallery spaces to match and parody the current distribution of antique books, objects and other ‘kits’ within the British Galleries of the V&A. Please see following plans and diagrams outlining some of the proposed objects for Lost Vitrine I (The slave traders and planters case) and Lost Vitrine II (The rebellious slave communities case)


Object for Lost Vitrine I :Planters Case, No 1 Open antique book on book stand. Proposed book title “In Case of Draptomania: A gentleman’s guide to the restraint of negroes” On open pages would be diagrams of restraint mecahnisms, chains, leg irons etc and excepts from De Bow’s Review Southern and Western States, Volume XI 1851 on the newly discovered disease of Draptomania which caused Negroes to contemplate escape from slavery.

Book mock-up (not actual pages to be used in final object)

Object for Lost Vitrine I : Planters Case, No 2 Closed edition of above book showing from cover and title.


Object for Lost Vitrine I :Planters Case, No 3 Parody of antique volumes showing architectural details of grand buildings. A volume showing details and layouts of slave dwellings on plantations.

Object for Lost Vitrine I :Planters Case, No 4 An ornate timber box strongly suggestive of a water colour paint box with a series of round tablets in a range of skin tones from extreme light to extreme dark. A label on the lid of the box with the provisional text “the coloureds codex: an overseers guide to comparative complexion� Alongside one corner of the box will be a list equating particular complexions with suitability for particular modes of labour, from managerial to extreme physical field work. This object will parody the equating of racial types to modes of labour which unpinned the organization of plantation economies.

Label on lid of box

written list encoding complextion with labour

colour samples suggestive of water colour paints


Object for Lost Vitrine II :Resistance Case, No 1 & 2 The Micro Resistance toolkit and Diary This ornate timber box will quote and parody the ornate utility, dress making and other ‘tool boxes’ which appear in the V&A display. Conceptually, it references the histories of the small acts of resistance carried out principally by domestic and house slaves who would conduct small acts of defiance and sabotage against the plantation owners whilst maintaining a passive air in the interest of survival. This Micro Resistance tool kit will contain an array of objects and substances which would be used by its fictional owner. These would include vials of bodily fluids to be added to the slave owners food, tools to jam locks or to loosen domestic fittings etc. Alongside this tool kit and its contents would be displayed a small diary on a bookstand detailing some of the acts of micro resistance undertaken by its fictional owner.

complex array of compartments, draws on enclosed units quoting period utility boxes

small jars containing bodily fluids and other substances

hand written diary


Object for Lost Vitrine II :Resistance Case, No 3 “Towards the decommissioning of plantation machinery” This book will exist as a parody the grand antique volume containing intricate engravings of steam powered mills and other machinery from the opening era of industrialization. However, these images will be accompanied by notes and diagrams around how to smash and sabotage these expensive technological items. This will be a comment upon one of the key reasons that slavery would eventually become financially unsustainable in that it made it difficult to introduce advanced technologies (such as steam mills) onto plantations because they were always at risk of sabotage from rebellious slaves

Object for Lost Vitrine II :Resistance Case, No 4 “Towards the decommissioning of plantation machinery” I would also display an edition of the same book closed with its embossed and titled front cover on display

Keith Piper. September 2006

Lost Vitrines Original Proposal  

Original proposal document for the installation 'Lost Vitrines'. This was a site specific art work commissioned by the Victoria and Albert M...

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