The Most Brilliant Exhibit on Slavery I’ve Ever Seen

Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History sits along Chicago’s lakeshore park property amidst large lawns and gardens. The trees are just coming into flower, and the breeze off Lake Michigan spreads the aroma generously. The museum itself, like a classical temple to science, sits atop a small hill, facing north, surveying the kingdom. Even Soldier Field, the odd amalgamation of Greco columns and gleaming space-aged metal that looms in the background, seems intimidated by the Field’s royal presence.

Inside, I’ve spent time with an impressive T-Rex skeleton, explored life under the soil, posed for photos with the man-eating lion’s of Tsavo, and marveled at the genius of Genghis Khan. Now I’m winding through a room-sized maze that shows off various geographical regions of Africa. It’s a great anthropological exhibit that explores the Dark Continent’s culture, geography, and history. But then I round a corner and come to a heavy wooden door with iron bars over its small window.

“Who was captured?” the sign asks. It lists the names of forty African tribes. “…among others,” it adds.

Through the door, the room is dark except for a blue light along the floor that lines the slowly upsloping walkway. It’s the hold of a slave ship, and both walls depict scenes of cramped deprivation and despair. The sketches, life-sized, don’t play for melodrama or gratuitous suffering. Everyone looks cramped. Worst of all, everyone looks scared.


I take my time walking up the ramp, surprised to find this exhibit here, dazed a little by its impact. I look at the faces, miserable, starting at me.

Outside, an auctioneers stands next to a sign that says “Sold! at auctions across the Americas — More than 10,000,000 Africans.”

Photos show images of slavery. Exhibits show the life in a typical slave quarters, the tools of daily life on a plantation, the dramatically different material culture the former Africans lived with compared to the artifacts of their previous life in Africa.

“Once they were Africans. Now they were slaves,” another panel says:

No longer Bakongo, no longer Fulani, no longer Yonuba, no longer Asanta…

Between 1445 and 1879, European slavers seized 10 to 20 million Africans from their families, communities, villages, towns and nations and sold them into slavery.

Priests, nobles, warriors, artisans, traders, herders, and farmers lost the status they held in Africa. The slave auction made them commodities. It assigned each a market value according to age, strength, fertility, and skill.

The transatlantic slave trade turned people into property. Owners gave new names and identities, controlling where they went, what they did, and whether they lived or died.

Yet Africans forged new identities in the Americas. many who escaped plantation slavery established African-style communities. Those trapped on plantations struggled to maintain their traditions as best they could.

“Why do you look angry?” my son asks. It takes a second for the question to register. I blink myself back to the present. “Angry?” I ask. “I’m not angry.”

“You look angry,” he tells me. “You face looked like this.” He scowls. His brows crease and the corners of his lips drop.

“Sorry,” I tell him. “I’m not angry. Just…upset. This exhibit. Slavery. It was a hard thing.”

There’s much emphasis these days on the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War. The Park Service, in particular, heavily pushes its “From Civil War to Civil Rights” theme. But nowhere have I seen a more brilliant exhibit on slavery and its impact than this one I now wander through.

Slavery is, for most of us, an abstract idea because we’re now so far removed from it (even if we still wrestle with its legacies). Most contemporary interpretation conveys with almost dogmatic firmness that “slavery was bad; emancipation was good,” assuming obvious agreement and comprehension. It is hard to disagree with, true, but I wonder how many people understand what slavery really meant.

The Field’s exhibit shows the tragedy of slavery in very real terms because it shows not just the life of a slave but the lives those people were forced to give up when they were captured and relocated and coerced into a life not at all of their own choosing. The before makes the after chilling and horrific.

I see many marvelous things at the Field. I see mummies and dinosaurs and colonies of ants. I see stardust. I see that the world is full of wonder.

But I see horror, too, and sadness. I see lives lost and reshaped and abused. I understand for the first time the impact of slavery. I see its cost, not only in the haunted eyes of the Africans in the ship’s hold but in my own scowling eyes reflected in my son’s expression. “It was a hard thing,” I tell him.

It was a hard thing.

6 Responses to The Most Brilliant Exhibit on Slavery I’ve Ever Seen

  1. Indeed, that’s good that the exhibit shows the context of what was lost by those who survived the Middle Passage, what might have been had not Africans and Europeans been caught up in oppressing their brethren.

    1. My son noticed some Arabic in an early part of the display, too, and asked about it. I explained that much of the slave trade (particularly on Africa’s east coast) was driven by Arabs from the northern part of the continent. It’s a shame how many peoples are really implicated in the whole tragedy.

      1. Oh yes, I’ve read on the Arab slave trade as well. It was nasty business all around, and there are still slave markets that survive in places like Mauritania more or less openly, despite official prohibition of the practice. I happen to live in Thailand right now and there are modifications of the practice in this part of the world, especially for the sex trade. There are a lot of people complicit in the practice.

  2. This is the second reference to this museum in Chicago I’ve read TODAY! Sounds remarkable…wish they had a traveling museum of this so every middle school student studying the history of the US could feel the impact of slavery…what was done to people, to families, to communities…in the name of progress. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  3. “Between 1445 and 1879, European slavers seized 10 to 20 million Africans from their families, communities, villages, towns and nations and sold them into slavery.”

    This leaves the false impression that Europeans launched large military-style slave-capturing raids into Africa. If I recall correctly, virtually all of the Africans forced into slavery were sold to the Europeans by other Africans.

    There truly were a LOT of people involved in the slave trade.

  4. I’m so glad you posted this. I was at the Field Museum last month and had to rush through this part of the museum due to two weary toddlers, but I thought I recalled a very touching slavery exhibit and through your post I found it! I’m just going to link to your page when I write my travel blog ( as you talk about it so very well – plus you took pictures. Great stuff!

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