Modern Slavery, Human Trafficking in the United States


of an Exhibition

by Devora Liss

Published on March 30, 2012, Modified on October 12, 2012

  • Description:

    Last year, I worked on an assignment curating/designing a hypothetical exhibition. Inspired by Kevin Bales’ book, I chose the topic of modern-day slavery. The challenges were huge: slavery permeates our globalized world, but the visitor should not feel blamed or implicated. Solutions are possible, but the exhibit should not feel preachy. The reality of slavery is unbelievably harsh, but visitors don’t want “downer” experiences. Slavery takes many forms, but commonalities must be distilled. Lastly, artifacts are almost impossible to come by.

    My project can be found here. I chose to emphasize that modern-day slavers are cheap, disposable and globalized. Visitors moved through three sections (Thailand, Brazil, and Pakistan), and learned how slaves are recruited, controlled, and eventually disposed of. I wanted visitors to experience slavery—whether through immersive environments, hands-on components, or sensing the unbreakable cycle of slavery.

    In February, Lincoln’s Cottage opened “Modern Slavery,” an exhibit that focuses solely on slavery in the United States. The small, darkened room includes three components (plus an intro panel). The first is a ceiling-to-floor screen, with a movie featuring survivors and rescuers. These include a woman who ran away as a teen and was picked up by a pimp who forced her to have sex with truck drivers, a boy who was brought from Zambia and forced to sing in US churches, and an undercover agent who used a pet dog to befriend a domestic slave when she took the children to church. The survivors do not hide their emotions, yet they are decidedly strong and do not blame themselves. The movie runs on a 20-minute loop and includes subtitles in English. Unfortunately, there is no seating for extensive viewing.

    The second component includes three large books, titled What is Modern Slavery? Who is Vulnerable? and How Do We End Human Trafficking? These include what is typically found on exhibit walls—text, pictures, and infographics. The books share a graphic identity, yet enjoy some extra flexibility. The spot lighting makes the books incredibly legible, despite the room’s darkness. The books define criteria for slavery (force, fraud, coercion), cover a range of industries where slaves work (farming, garments, brothels), show examples of slavery across the United States and in Washington, DC, and urge visitors to take action (learn, lobby, report). Each of the books ends by informing visitors how to report suspicious activity. Additionally, the book format makes it easy for parents to decide which images to show their children (the books are conveniently not glued/bolted down).

    The third component is a wall of take-away postcards. One side has a slavery-related fact, the other has an action the visitor can take. These include the National Human Trafficking Hotline, ways to donate to the Polaris Project, or a postcard to President Obama (complimentary postage at the Museum Shop!).

    Despite its small space, this exhibition does a wonderful job. The focus on slavery in the United States allows the message to be geared more towards reporting suspicious activity, perhaps because slaves in the United States are typically less involved in commercial production than their counterparts worldwide (making boycotts less relevant), and because the United States already has laws against slavery. (It was interesting to learn that modern-day anti-slavery laws are based on the laws that abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade.) Additionally, the exhibition does an excellent job dealing with nuances, such as the importance of training law enforcement to distinguish between undocumented workers and slaves.

    Perhaps the greatest take-away action/message is a website for calculating your slavery footprint. Convincing one’s self that slavery has been abolished is easy, especially when visiting the site where Lincoln may have written the Emancipation Proclamation. Kudos to the staff at Lincoln’s Cottage for taking on this difficult topic, and for creating such a tasteful, elegant exhibition.

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