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Art Culture

Review: era of reclamation – beyond Bridgerton

In response to the popularity Shonda Rhimes’ Bridgerton has gained, the British Museum held a conference to discuss the ways in which the museum itself can represent Black Britons better. 

The speakers included Olivette Otele, Professor of History of Slavery and Memory of Enslavement at the University of Bristol. S. I. Martin, author specialising in Black British history and literature, and founder of ‘500 Years of Black London’. The American journalist and Deputy Chair of the British Museum, Bonnie Greer and lastly, the Director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer. 

There was a key theme of reflection running throughout the event, beginning with Martin’s idea of “the third rail” which prompts us as British citizens to reflect on our heritage as a nation and the position of people of African origin within Britain. From a young age our history lessons consisted of families like the Tudors and Stuarts leading to a childhood mind dreaming of a life full of balls and fancy dinner parties as an aristocrat in the past. As we grew into adulthood, these dreams are projected on our screens through period dramas. However, Otele rightly pointed out the exclusion of Black people from this television genre. She later expanded on this idea bringing back the key theme as Bridgerton’s Black audience reflect on their younger idealised dreams of regency Briton and finally get to see themselves in positions of power through characters such as the Duke of Hastings and Queen Charlotte. 

Although I agree with Otele’s statement surrounding the lack of diversity within British period dramas, I also understand Martin’s argument that Bridgerton sugar coats the reality of the regency era. It is no secret that the show is not historically accurate, however when questioning if it is necessary to include Black people as members of the British aristocracy at a time when they would instead be slaves to those in power, it raises the question if this idealised childhood daydream was needed. Why not instead, as Martin proposed, present a range of Black people who really did hold power, such as the Prince of Sierra Leone and thus create a true representation of the regency era whilst reflecting Black culture?

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Fischer expanded this idea further by stating: “now that we’ve seen the fantasy, what was the truth?”. This lead the discussion to question how the British Museum must do its best to present the true Black heritage of both Queen Charlotte and her husband to the public in order to educate the audience. As the British Museum has the platform to tell the story of Black British people in the regency era, Otele states that the museum must take action like the National Archives Trust did. The British Museum should thus work with the colonial archive material that it already owns interpreting these in a way that allows the museum to facilitate the conversation about Black history in Britain. 

Although, we can try and reclaim something from Bridgerton, as Greer and Otele argue, there is no merit in this as black people are not gaining anything from seeing their fantasy. Instead, we must examine themes beyond the truth and reality of Black people, peel back other layers such as gender dynamics and the issue of colourism discussing how they functioned at the time to whole heartly reflect the truth of Black British history. Fischer rightly states that the museum is, “a place to encounter the past and the truth, and to take it away make it your own and use it to shape the present.” This is why true presentations of the Black history is necessary, not the sugar-coated childhood fantasy world that is portrayed in Bridgerton. The British Museum must instead reflect the true meaning of what it meant to be Black in regency Britain, then place the audience of 21st century at the heart of the story to allow all audiences the opportunity to acknowledge the struggles of Black British people throughout history.

Image credits Georgina Carey