Birkbeck, University of London’s ‘Poetry against Slavery’

Birkbeck, University of London’s ‘Poetry against Slavery’

Birkbeck, University of London’s ‘Poetry against Slavery’

By Matt Martin, PhD researcher in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London

Find out how Matt from Birkbeck, University of London brought his research to life by engaging the public in performances of African and Caribbean poetry. Find out how he sparked conversations about a topic that can feel intimidating to discuss, but is central to our national history. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your event?

‘Poetry against Slavery’ was a number of one-hour tours that took place in the ‘London, Sugar & Slavery’ gallery at the Museum of London Docklands. I led guests around the exhibits, explaining how poetry in Africa, the Caribbean and Britain has contributed to struggles against slavery, empire and racism. The tour incorporated group readings and discussions of texts, each connecting to an exhibit in the gallery. It took place on 4 days during Being Human 2018, with 2 tours per day. The aim was to help participants appreciate how poetry can articulate resistance against oppression.

It was always planned that this event would be part of the Being Human ‘Open Call pathway’, since use of the venue was free, and the tours required no physical resources other than printouts of poetry (arranged through Birkbeck, University of London).

How did you go about reaching your target audience for the tours?

The target audience was non-academic adults. Given the topic’s relation to colonialism, I was especially keen to reach BAME audiences. The Museum of London Docklands was ideal for this, as it is within the hugely diverse East End, attracts a high proportion of BAME visitors, and has a unique collection of exhibits addressing the tour’s themes. The event was marketed through Birkbeck’s online channels, the venue’s social media and through posters. There was also some coverage in the national press via the Times Higher Education Supplement.

What worked particularly well in the design and delivery of your events? Did you face any challenges?

Using literature proved a great way to engage participants with a topic (slavery) that can often be intimidating. One attendee commented that it was ‘an excellent treatment of a bleeding sore in British history and a story that needs to be told here in particular’.

It was also good to perform the activity in a public space as it gave passers-by the opportunity to join in. It was sometimes hard to fit everything in the scheduled hour – especially challenging since many guests wanted to know more and had lots of questions!

Has the event impacted your research?

The tour has informed the content and direction of my current research. For example, it involved reading some African and Caribbean poems that were composed for group performance – enacting these with the tour participants gave a strong sense of the works’ original impacts. I have also learned from how the guests related the poetry to their family histories, and it was useful to get a perspective on my topic from outside of academia.

Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future Being Human event organisers?

1. Get to your venue well in advance of each event, just in case any problems need addressing.
2. Think ahead regarding how to adjust your event for participants with non-standard requirements, e.g. children at an adult event, guests with disabilities.
3. Look after yourself! If giving multiple presentations, make sure you have enough of a break between them.


This project was part of Being Human’s 2018 Open Call pathway. To be part of the 2019 festival and submit an event for the Open Call please visit our ‘apply now’ page.