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‘Imperial Legacies, Sacred Space’. exhibition in Chester Cathedral.

This project sought to facilitative dialogue about the relationship between Chester Cathedral, its history and the physical legacies of the British Empire found within its interior. These markers of ‘entanglement’ - artefacts, memorials and connections with persons of note - suggested a long and multifaceted relationship between this community, its landmark sacred space and the imperial past. Yet, the absence of any formal acknowledgement of this ‘connectedness’ to colonial histories within the Cathedral space pointed to a need for interpretation. The project team (comprised of academics from History and Archaeology; Theology and Religious Studies, and Music, Media and Performance) in collaboration with the Cathedral and with University of Chester students, aimed to address this lacuna through a variety of interrelated activities in the Cathedral: an on-site exhibition, creative exploration and performance, reflective workshops, and a lecture series.

The exhibition (on display in the Cathedral’s South Transept) launched on 18th May and ran until 30th May. All of the other related activities also took place within this fortnight against the backdrop of the exhibition or within the Cathedral building. Four performances of work created by c.30 Level 5 students took place in June, pulling in an audience of approximately 100 people. Performed in sites and spaces throughout the Cathedral, the student work explored the two historical case studies examined in the exhibition: Chester’s abolitionist bishop Beilby Porteus, and the most famous military figure commemorated within the Cathedral, General Charles James Napier. The lives, work, conduct and outlook of these two men – set against the backdrop of late 18th and 19th Century British imperial expansionism – allowed the students to critically interrogate histories of empire, slavery and abolitionism, especially as they related to Chester and Cheshire. Indeed, audience members praised the performances for using history to raise greater awareness of modern-day slavery whilst others were impressed at the unflinching way the creative work treated legacies of colonialism and slavery. “Excellent to see the legacies of colonialism and slavery treated upfront and not ‘covered up’ or hidden away” wrote one visitor on social media.

Interviews with some of the students indicate that their involvement with this project provided learning that was challenging, educative and enjoyable. Key challenges were around addressing sensitive heritage creatively and confidently with little background knowledge and as a mostly white group who felt that the stories were not theirs to tell; and doing so in the spaces of the Cathedral, with audiences who may similarly have little background knowledge or preparation for engaging with the subject matter. The students report a growth in their own understanding of the histories, and of the possibilities for engaging them creatively (beyond the purely representational), and a sense of the importance of telling hidden stories of those involved in colonialism, empire and slavery, and Chester and the Cathedral’s relationship to them, from multiple perspectives.

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