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Making Visible Exeter’s Imperial Past

Behind the RAMM’s In Plain Sight blue plaque showcase


The RAMM’s 2022 In Plain Sight exhibition in Exeter includes a collection of 14 alternative blue plaques made by students at the University of Exeter for a module called Global Lives: Multicultural Geographies.

Here is the behind the scenes work that went into making them.

The Global Lives module

Global Lives: Multicultural Geographies was designed and taught by Professors Nicola Thomas and Ian Cook to find ways to discuss with students how and why colonial ‘race’ relations persist in the present; how these legacies (fail to) afford the UK’s diverse population a sense of belonging in rural and urban spaces; and what kinds of interventions have bubbled up recently to show us how things could be different.

The module draws upon lively ongoing debates about the UK’s colonial heritage as a lens through which the ‘temperature’ of discussions, debates and controversies in this field can be taken. When a ‘culture war’ erupts that tries to close down discussion about traces of colonialism in the present day, we ask ‘why’ and ‘what’ does this tell us?

The module addresses these issues by asking its students to choose, research, design, temporarily install and critically reflect upon a missing blue plaque that somehow showcases traces of colonialism in contemporary Exeter. This task is half of the module’s coursework.

The ‘In Plain Sight’ showcase

RAMM curators selected 14 of the module’s 2019 plaques to include in a showcase on the museum’s In Plain Sight webpages. The RAMM’s showcase includes photos of the plaques and accounts of their subjects’ involvement in transatlantic slavery.

This collection is important because it shows, for example, that there were arguments for and against transatlantic slavery – in Exeter at the time – so we can imagine what they might have been, who made them and why by walking around the city today.

Below, we’ve copied most of the photos of these plaques into a slideshow and added photos taken by the students of these plaques in situ: i.e. where they could be placed in city if and when they ever became Exeter’s official heritage. It makes a big difference to see them there. See what you think.

NB this work is reproduced with permission of the students who made it.

Exeter is a global city

Like any place, Exeter is connected to and, to a large extent, made from sets of relations that have a global history: including that of the British Empire. Traces of this history can be found through learning more about the people who owned, lived in, spoke in and otherwise frequented its buildings, the gravestones and memorials others commemorated them with in churchyards and the Cathedral, the areas and city streets named after them and their travels, the origins and destinations of the goods that were historically shipped from the quayside, and the remains of all of these histories that are all around us.

Exeter’s authorised heritage – its official blue plaques, memorials, statues, museum displays, etc. – show a somewhat partial and selective range of such traces. But there’s more to find, more to display and more to think about this city and its hidden heritage. Especially now.

What to do with imperial heritage

There’s a lot of this rethinking going on in the UK at the moment, especially following the Black Lives Matter critique of, and challenge to, authorised ‘British’ heritage that came to public attention in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol in the summer of 2020. To tune into this, Global Lives‘ students are asked to watch the following video playlist of news reports and activism from the time. Please watch…

Making heritage differently

The kind of playful heritage activism in these news reports and in the Global Lives plaque assignment is called guerrilla memorialisation (see Alan Rice and others). It involves the reworking of familiar markers of heritage – like street names, statues or blue plaques – in order to question the people they celebrate and what they are celebrated for, and to offer missing and alternative subjects and perspectives to complicate and challenge what’s called the authorised heritage discourse (see LauraJane Smith) of what’s already there.

Inspired by the making and placing of plaques in David Olusoga’s BBCTV series Black and British: a forgotten history, Global Lives‘ students are challenged to consider how authorised ‘British’ heritage includes and excludes, celebrates and marginalises the nation’s white and black populations; to think critically about why and how representations of the British Empire seem so important in the present; and to design a creative intervention that experiments with how these representations can be questioned and changed in place.

Sometimes guerrilla memorialisations include the names and logos of heritage organisations who choose and place authorised plaques – like English Heritage or Exeter Civic Society – to encourage them to make official plaques for these alternative subjects. Where the names and logos of these organisations were included in the RAMM’s showcased plaques, they were redacted to avoid confusion…

Making alternative plaques for Exeter

Researching, making and placing these alternative blue plaques is a form of creative intervention in the urban fabric of the city. How? Global Lives students are given a set of tasks to follow.

First, they were asked to research Exeter’s colonial connections using websites including Telling Our Stories, Finding Our Roots and the Legacies of British Slavery.

Second, they were asked to identify a person from that research whose involvement in the British Empire has left traces in the city and to find out more about their lives through academic and archival research.

Third, drawing inspiration from all of the above, they are tasked to ‘culture jam’ a traditional blue plaque to catchily draw attention to their chosen subject’s role in the creation of, profiting from and/or resistance to transatlantic slavery and/or other underpinnings of the British Empire. They are also asked to include, on their plaque, the fact that this person ‘lived here’, ‘is buried here’, etc..

Fourth, they are asked to take their plaque and to temporarily install it in or near the place where its subject ‘lived’ (or traded, spoke, was buried, etc.). They are asked to photograph it there in situ, chat to anyone who asked them about what they are doing, take it down and submit it with their essay for exhibition at the Devon and Exeter Institution later in the year.

Finally, in their essay they are asked to describe what they did (i.e all of the above) and to explain how their subject’s guerrilla memorialisation could be situated in wider literatures critically interrogating the legacies of the British Empire in contemporary society and its built environment, and the senses of multicultural identity and belonging that such creative interventions can help to foster in place.

Occasionally, students research and make a plaque for an event, a family, an architectural feature, or other subject that works along the same lines. This is encouraged.

The tip of the iceberg

Global Lives students have researched, made and placed many many more plaques to delve into and make public Exeter’s connections to transatlantic slavery and the British Empire. Here’s a selection that didn’t make it into the showcase. They haven’t been professional photographed, so please excuse the quality.

‘Something physical to be proud of.’

In 2019, the University of Exeter commissioned some video interviews with Global Lives students asking them what it was like to make this work in and for the city. Here’s what they said.



This plaque work has emerged from detailed collaborations with a number of partner organisations in Exeter including the Telling Our Stories Finding Our Roots project, the Devon & Exeter Institution and the Legacies of Devon Slave-Ownership Group and detailed conversations with Exeter Civic Society. None are responsible for, or would necessarily endorse, this work or what’s said about it here. Research for each showcased plaque was verified by Profs. Thomas & Cook who wrote its official text with RAMM’s curators. They would like to extend their heartfelt thanks to all of the students who have taken the Global Lives module and produced such imaginative, important, excellent work.

And finally…

Exeter Civic Society welcomes new nominations for blue plaques. To find out more, please follow the link below: