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Amistad: Retold A Contemporary View at New Haven Museum


New Haven, Conn. (May 6, 2024) – The reconceived exhibition “Amistad: Retold” takes a new angle on the familiar story of the Amistad, centering the people who led the revolt and their collective actions to determine their own lives. It also foregrounds New Haven as the site of their incarceration and organizing by Black and white abolitionists. The exhibition opens at the New Haven Museum (NHM) on Thursday, May 9, 2024, at 5:30 p.m., and will begin with remarks by project advisors who collaborated with NHM on the reinterpretation of the gallery. A reception follows at 6:15 p.m., courtesy of Jack’s Steakhouse.


The 1839 Amistad Revolt was led by 53 West African captives who were being trafficked from Havana’s slave markets on the schooner La Amistad after being kidnapped from their homelands, despite European treaties prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade. The Museum notes the diversity of the Amistad captives—their multiethnic, multilingual, and economic backgrounds, with trades that ranged from rice farmer to blacksmith, in addition to weavers, hunters, and merchants.


Incarcerated for nearly 19 months in New Haven, the Amistad captives worked closely with anti-slavery activists who formed the Amistad Committee and connected with networks of engaged citizens to organize and fundraise for their legal defense. Artists, particularly those based in New Haven, gave representation to the movement by creating engravings and paintings that enabled the public to envision the circumstances of the captives and recognize their individuality and resolve in protecting their freedom. A number of those significant works made their way to the New Haven Museum collection.

Visitors will be immediately surprised by the new visual experience of the gallery - its vibrant colors, transformation of the space, as well as a new acquisition - the color serigraph of artist Jacob Lawrence’s “Revolt on the Amistad,” created in 1989 to commemorate the Amistad Revolt sesquicentennial. A cover image from a Golden Legacy comic book offers a 1970s pop-culture adaptation of NHM’s iconic Sengbe Pieh portrait, which was painted in 1840 by Nathaniel Jocelyn at the time of the trials. The painting has returned to view after two years, following its inclusion in “Afro-Atlantic Histories,” a major traveling exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.


In response to questions and comments from students and teachers during workshops, the new exhibition includes a large-scale map that charts the voyages of the Amistad rebels. The map provides context about the continual resistance to the slave trade in West Africa and across the Atlantic, as well as the changing Trans-Atlantic politics in the years preceding the Amistad Revolt in 1839. Visitors will also appreciate a time-lapse map created by that visualizes the expansion of the slave trade despite its illegality in the mid-19th century. Significantly, the exhibition highlights the crucial leadership of Black abolitionists, incorporating excerpts from Black-owned and abolitionist newspapers. 


Joanna Steinberg, NHM director of learning and engagement, who updated the exhibition with NHM Director of Photo Archives Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, notes that drawing on new scholarship and working with a team of project advisors was critical to the process of transforming the Amistad exhibition. She consulted with Daisha Brabham, director of education and public outreach at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale; Dexter Gabriel, assistant professor of history and Africana studies at University of Connecticut; Kai M. Perry, president of the Amistad Committee, Inc. and board member of “Discovering Amistad”; Thomas Thurston, former director of education and public outreach at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition at Yale, and NHM staff educators Rohanna S. Delossantos and Eve Galanis, who also teach in New Haven schools.  Steinberg adds, “We were fortunate to have their guidance, as they encouraged us to frame the global context historically and in the present, to foreground the stories of the children of the Amistad, to highlight the abolitionist strategies and Black leadership in the movement and the continued struggles to secure equal citizenship for free Black communities.” The museum is grateful to Charles Warner Jr., chairman of the Connecticut Freedom Trail and co-curator of the NHM exhibition, “Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, & Slavery,” who wrote the panel about the history of Temple Street Congregational Church and its role in the Amistad narrative.


Joanna Steinberg notes that during workshops students asked, “Were there other revolts?” and “Did Amistad lead to other revolts?” She recalls the teacher who pointed out that the whole story of the Amistad could be unpacked from the zig-zag line on the map charting the route of La Amistad following the revolt, representing the rebels’ resistance, self-determination, and attempts to return to their homelands. Steinberg wants classes to know “how much their thoughts, opinions, and questions are valued and were crucial to informing the work we’re doing at the New Haven Museum.” Other contemporary elements include a QR code to a riveting interactive map designed by NHM Educator Eve Galanis—who created the project to engage her high-school students—charting the African captives’ harrowing journey from their kidnapping in Sierra Leone, their time incarcerated and on trial in the United States, to their return to West Africa.


“One of the most significant takeaways from this exhibition is that it is interdisciplinary by design,” says New Haven Museum Executive Director Margaret Anne Tockarshewsky. “The focus on the arts and media prompts meaningful responses, personal interpretation, and discussion. The inclusion of historical and contemporary visual representations bridges the past and present. Hale Woodruff’s and Jacob Lawrence’s works, and the Golden Legacy comic book cover, demonstrate that the story of the Amistad still felt relevant to artists 100, 120, and even 150 years after, and they encourage us to re-examine our present and future.” 


Regarding his role in the transformation of the exhibition space, Bischoff-Wurstle notes, “ From top to bottom, floor to ceiling we looked at how the room tied into the story, and I wanted to convey a sense of sublime respect for the stories of the survivors and their legacies.” He adds, “By removing a false wall and allowing literal natural light to flow in and connect the gallery and museum as a whole to the outside world we are serving to broaden the story of the survivors and engage the viewers in a memorable physical experience as well.”

Beginning in July 2024, NHM will partner with the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and Discovering Amistad on an array of public programs in conjunction with the exhibit.


At the exhibition’s opening, the Amistad Committee will announce the awardees of the Toni N. Harp Human Rights Day Essay Contest for New Haven public high school students. This year, students have written essays connecting their ideas to the life and contributions of Judge Constance Baker Motley (Hillhouse High School class of 1939) to human and civil rights.



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