The first thing to be said about Ana Lucia Araujo’s latest book, included in Routledge’s Museum in Focus series, is that it is a straightforward volume that delivers the message. It is a direct, compelling reading about a topic of the utmost importance to public historians working today when debates about the public presentation of history are inevitably crisscrossed by demands for representation. The clear question that Araujo asks and proposes to answer is how societies that experienced slavery or participated in the Atlantic slave trade represent these themes in their museums, whether in their permanent collections or in temporary exhibitions. This is a question as exciting as it is thorny, especially when inserted into a convulsive cultural context which revolves, not always as carefully and insightfully as this book, around problems related to the mnemonic legacies of colonization.

Although the author demonstrates extensive knowledge of museum institutions focused on slavery around the world, some of which have already been covered in her previous writings, four countries provide the case studies for the book. Brazil and the United States emerge as the nations of the American continents in which debates about the slaveholding past and its continuing legacy of inequality have been most recurrent (and quite inflamed). France and England, in turn, appear as significant cases within the European context, in which the re-elaboration of traumatic pasts in museology is a deeply rooted practice, but the region only recently has been dealing with traumas pertaining to slavery. In all cases, national commemorations have stimulated the recognition that slavery could no longer be construed in exhibitions as a secondary theme linked to maritime expansion and other topics of general history.

Araujo’s book, however, is not organized according to these countries and the various museums and exhibitions that have played a part in this reconceptualization, but according to categories of analysis that reflect the author’s astuteness in discerning four major axes that correspond to tropes commonly found in the museums she visited: “Wealth and Refinement,” “Submission and Victimization,” “Resistance and Rebellion,” and “Achievement and Legacies.” These are far from self-contained notions or absolute themes determined by the objects inserted in exhibitions and museums. They are, as Araujo’s analysis reveals, conceptualizations positioned within an interpretive framework; they are forms of approaches that are always relating to each other and revealing shortfalls, priorities, and often the uneasiness of curators and public historians in dealing with slavery and the slave trade in a multifocal way, attentive both to the complexity of the experience of those enslaved, as well as to current political demands of groups, and to recent transformations in historiography.

One of the highlights of the book is its hermeneutic inclination, which finds fertile fields of exploration in very concrete examples. This is the case of the author’s questioning of the appropriateness of exhibiting instruments of torture and punishment such as chains, shackles, and restrainers inside glass displays, stripped of the relationship with the agents of slavery, and thus almost gaining the aura of art objects. Would these suggest a victimization without victims or perpetrators? The same tension is present in the author’s commentary about museums’ tendency to present the material wealth that is contiguous with slavery: furniture, silver, portraits, textiles, clothing, and other consumer objects characteristic of a luxurious lifestyle made possible by the slave trade and slave ownership. But, Araujo asks, how much does the display of these solitary objects hide the true (and highly significant) fact that such goods might have been owned by slave merchants and owners, but only fulfilled their useful functions by virtue of being manipulated daily by the enslaved people themselves?

The clear, well-detailed but not reportorial tone of Museums and Atlantic Slavery takes the reader through a variety of spaces, linked by an elastic notion of “museum,” duly discussed in the book’s introduction. Recognizing the breadth of the term, Araujo circumscribes her optics to institutions that have collections or that have built collections of interest for this theme, no matter their size or institutional setting. On this journey, one goes from a community museum in a small town in the interior of Minas Gerais, Brazil, to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC.

The always present companion to the reading is the meticulous criticism that does not prevent the author from recognizing two important realities. The first is the fact that museums tend to be seen as conservative institutions but hold enormous dynamism and the ability to adapt—either reflecting genuine interest in advancing public interpretations of the past, or perhaps funding pressures, academic and artistic fads, and changes in legislation. The second is the fact that people involved in projects such as the ones she analyzes—museum staff, curators, public historians—tend to be truly committed to making the best out of their tasks. In other words, if Araujo can list several areas in which the presence of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade as a theme for museums can be improved upon, this not only accompanies successes but pari passu is due to the very efforts of a large community of professionals to fill in a long silence. This is why the book draws on the author’s dialogues with museum curators and guides and displays an abundant dialogue as well with recent scholarship written by individuals directly involved in the museums and exhibitions under scrutiny.

In short, this is a book of interest to the field of public history because museological activity itself falls within its scope: it is the work of professionals who may be called public historians that the author appreciates, offering comments that suggest possibilities for improving their relationship with a sensitive topic, such as slavery. But the book goes beyond this immediate use. When considering the relationship between specific decision-making processes (here, resulting in displays of objects and collections) and the meanings they acquire when recontextualized, the book—in its incessant establishment of links between the parts and the whole—invites public historians to reflect on the impacts and responsibilities of their own individual work in the formation and transformation of a broader historical consciousness.

Ricardo Santhiago, Federal University of São Paulo