Confronting colonial modernity in a French city: Slavery and racism in Bordeaux’s Musée d’Aquitaine

Claire Sutherland*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Downloads (Pure)


What is the purpose of an exhibit on Atlantic slavery? Does it seek to raise awareness of the trade in enslaved people, with a view to highlighting and overcoming its racist legacy, or to situate the Atlantic trade within the historical – and ongoing – continuum of slavery, or to draw attention to the role of slavery in constituting colonial modernity? Does giving this history its rightful place within the national story of France, Britain or elsewhere ultimately serve to embed racial divisions in contemporary society, or to expunge them? In other words, does a reckoning with Atlantic slavery open a path to tackling racism today? This article addresses these questions in turn. Its principal referent is the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, set in the wider context of the city’s self-image and French debates around commemorating the Atlantic slave trade. The article concludes that even though Bordeaux’s slaving past is integrated into the Musée d’Aquitaine’s guiding chronology, the full ramifications of slavery for colonial modernity have not been understood or represented. Beyond simplistic dichotomies of guilt and innocence, accusation and repentance, the enormous significance of coloniality and slavery in constituting European modernity, not least the Enlightenment, have yet to be grasped and assimilated in Bordeaux.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-43
Number of pages23
JournalHeritage and Society
Issue number1
Early online date11 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2024

Cite this