Peter Brathwaite, the world-renowned baritone and artist, has partnered with the Bodleian Libraries for a new pop-up exhibition, Mischief in the Archives. The display, which opens in Blackwell Hall at the Weston Library on 27 January 2024, aims to engage audiences with a humanising perspective on history and ancestry. It challenges preconceived racialised narratives and restores dignity to those the archives have long muted.
Using the Bodleian’s collections, London-based musician and artist Peter traces his roots back to the British-owned Codrington plantations in Barbados. His studies revealed he had ancestors who had been enslaved and other ancestors who had been slave traders. These include John Brathwaite, the white plantation owner and colonial agent who leased the plantation; and Margaret and Addo Brathwaite, an enslaved then freed Black couple that lived and worked there. This pop-up exhibition is intended to reveal their humanity and shed light on their little-known stories.
Items from Peter’s personal family collection are juxtaposed against the Bodleian Libraries collections to create an intimate display that explores his journey to uncover his family history, spanning continents and centuries. Told through archival documents, personal items, and reflections, it illuminates the interconnected stories of three of his ancestors, whose lives intersected amid the grim reality of slavery in 18th century Barbados.
The theme of ‘Mischief in the Archives’ conveys multiple meanings, as for the display, curator, Peter, is placing his own family artefacts alongside the archives he researched at Bodleian Libraries as an act of creative ‘mischief’. In what he calls ‘counter-archives’, Peter challenges the colonial records narrative and surfaces the hidden voices buried within them.
In the historical archives, enslaved individuals were also often labelled ‘mischievous’ for simply trying to assert their humanity and personhood. Resisting oppression was seen as unruly behaviour.
Further mischief is embodied by a shaggy ceremonial costume, representing the trickster spirit in Caribbean folklore, displayed to symbolise this spirit of playful disruption running through the show. This costume, created by Peter, represents his own role in this story. By juxtaposing Peter’s contemporary perspective and personal items with archives and records from the past, the exhibition aims to humanise dehumanised histories. The display offers public audiences a chance to hear and view the living history of slavery and empire that has to all intents and purposes been buried in the archives. And finally, for public visitors of Black heritage and from the Caribbean diaspora community who share similar ancestral experience, it embodies the quest to reconstruct identity and lineage and see their human experience validated, acknowledged and displayed, with care.
The items displayed intimately reflect the spirits of Peter’s ancestors. These include: a stone from John's hometown, a patchwork pillowcase, and a wooden tool carved by Addo's descendant, juxtaposed with items from the Bodleian’s archives including letters from John Brathwaite and Barbados Plantation accounts. Their stories come alive through vivid first-person exhibition text drawing from Peter's reflections, the archives, and other sources.
Of his experience using historic archives to piece together his own identity, he says:
‘I always had this urge to dig. I wanted to learn more about these real people from history – from my history, and I am heartened and unbelievably proud to have this opportunity through the Bodleian Libraries, to share them with you too.’
‘It was pain-staking work, but totally worth it, you can find little nuggets. It’s really important for people to hear this. If you move away from the data, you can find the people behind the numbers.’ But, he warns, it is something that needs to be done with care because of the ‘visceral violence’ and challenging terminology of the historic papers. He says, ‘It is not easy.’
Presented in partnership with the Bodleian Libraries, this exhibition comes as part of the libraries’ Mellon Foundation funded research project, We Are Our History. The project's title takes inspiration from a quote by the American writer James Baldwin: "History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history." Through the project, the libraries are taking a closer look at its collections, work with audiences and its staffing through the lens of race and the legacies of the British Empire, with the overall goal of actively fostering inclusion and diversity in everything it does.
Recent examples of this work have included partnering with the Museum of Colour for the exhibition ‘These Things Matter: Empire, Exploitation and Everyday Racism’, a pop-up event; 'Trailblazers: Black Oxford Untold Stories' in partnership with Westgate Oxford; and a series of talks by artists, scholars and researchers opening up critical engagement with archives and what they can tell us about race and identity.
Jasdeep Singh, project lead for We Are Our History, said: 'Peter's journey of family history shows how diving into the archives can unexpectedly intertwine past and present, reminding us that within dusty records lie real people awaiting rediscovery. His 'counter-archive' ensures varied voices are present, asserting his ancestors' humanity, not passing mentions in colonial records. By sharing this platform with Peter to engage critically with our collections, this display embodies our commitment through the We Are Our History Project to learn, adapt and represent overlooked stories and experiences within our archives.'
Find out more about Mischief in the Archives.