To mark the centenary of the sale of the Danish West Indies, The Royal Library is putting on a large exhibition about the visual cultural history of the islands. The exhibition focuses on images and postcards in Danish archives and collections. And asks what the images from the island actually show – and what one is unable to see.
The three Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. Jan were Danish colonies for over 250 years, and the collections at The Royal Library, as also other Danish archives, are full of objects from this part of Denmark and the islands' common history.
The exhibition focuses on the visual material that is in the library: maps, postcards, photographs, newspapers, etc. The many reproductions might perhaps seem to provide a direct window onto Denmark's colonial past, but no reproduction is neutral, and generally speaking the images were created by and for those in power. The mapping of the islands, for example, was not just a neutral scientific registration but also the first step towards being able to portion out and exploit the land commercially. And the many beautiful illustrations of idyllic plantation life do not show the enslaved Africans, whose freedom and health were sacrificed by the plantation owners in the process of taming nature and cultivating the soil.
The exhibition shows a selection of motifs from the first etching of Columbus meeting the 'noble savages' of the West Indies in the 15th century, via the Danish families' photo albums from around the year 1900 as well as the unsentimental newspaper descriptions of runaway slaves up to the present-day enticing advertisements for trips to the silver sandy beaches of the islands. The historical material is displayed alongside video works by the visual artists Jeannette Ehlers and Nanna Debois Buhl, both of whom work with the presentation of Denmark's colonial past. And en route at the exhibition a number of people's various present-day reactions to the images will feature on a parallel soundtrack.
The exhibition is part of The Royal Library's overall observance of the centenary of the sale, which also includes digitalisations, workshops, lectures and conversations, conferences and a concert.
A number of activities enable users to gain access to working with the library material so as to create their own interpretations of the history of the islands.
Representing History Through Data – A Datasprint Series
Researchers and students cooperate on analysing maps, images, folktales, customs statements etc. and visualising the data in digital form – read more here.
What Lies Unspoken
The research project 'Living Archives' will carry out a number of workshops where the participants' reactions to and dialogue about various images will be recorded. The soundtracks can be experienced digitally and physically at the exhibition Blind Spots. The project is a cooperation with the National Gallery of Denmark and is led by the art historian Temi Odumosu.
Space & Time are developing a remix tool that enables people to make their own collages of the photographer Peter Elfelt's stereo photographs from the islands.
Lectures and debates
Debates and International Authors' Stage events focusing on the present-day importance of colonial history will be held at The Black Diamond. The series of events will have the journalist Adam Holm as moderator (Autumn 2017).
A newly composed work based on the history of the Danish West Indies will be given its first performance. (Autumn 2017).
Digital educational material focusing on the understanding of images, the history of the media and interpretation of visual material as historical sources will be published in April 2017.
In collaboration with Copenhagen University, the international research conference 'Unfinished stories: colonialism race and representation' will take place (Autumn 2017).