April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Engaging Users With Archives: Parliament And the British Slave Trade 1600-1807

David Prior, Parliamentary Archives, United Kingdom


The year 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary abolition of the British slave trade. In order to provide on-line access to the wealth of material held by the UK Parliamentary Archives in London, a Web site was commissioned to enable users to interact with documents, works of art and museum artefacts, as well as to provide a legacy of an exhibition held at Westminster in the summer of 2007.

Keywords: archive, interactive, learning, exhibition, diversity


The Parliamentary Archives has custody of the archives of both Houses of the United Kingdom Parliament. These records, which include all Acts of Parliament from 1497, records of proceedings, documents laid before both Houses, plans relating to public works, judicial and administrative papers, date from the fifteenth century and are stored in the Victoria Tower repository within the Palace of Westminster in London (

The Archives pursues an active outreach programme which is designed to promote our activities and enable as wide as possible access to our collections. In particular, we are keen to make our collections accessible for learning, by both school children as well as adult learners. In addition, we have sought to diversify the ethnicity of our users. An important part of this programme of engagement has been the development of Web-based resources which have highlighted elements of our collections. In 2003 we launched, in partnership with the UK National Archives, a resource exploring the concept of citizenship ( This was followed in 2005 by a Web site about the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (, (Kennedy, Prior, Sawyer and Pratty, 2006). Both of these projects were important steps forward in broadening access to our collections and were accompanied by the launch of an on-line catalogue of our holdings called Portcullis ( The ability for our users to carry our remote searches as well as view images of certain of our documents has particular significance given our location in central London in a heavily guarded building with limited space for readers to consult archival materials. By 2007, on-line visits to the catalogue were approaching 17 times the number of personal visits we can accommodate in our Search Room at Westminster.

The active pursuit of these outreach activities is not taking place in a vacuum. In recent years both Houses of Parliament have placed an emphasis on engaging the public with the work of Parliament. Central to this has been the development of the Parliamentary Web site as a core resource for the understanding of the activities of the House of Commons and the House of Lords ( The public are now able to participate in eConsultations or watch live video feed of debates in both Houses. The development of our historical resources supports this policy of engagement in that these resources draw on the enormous public interest in history. We hope that they encourage people to explore Parliament’s overall on-line presence, deepening their understanding of the work and history of Parliament at the same time.

The 200th Anniversary Of The Abolition Of The British Slave Trade

In assessing the future direction of our outreach programme, it was recognised that the 200th anniversary in 2007 of the parliamentary abolition of the British slave trade presented a range of opportunities, particularly in terms of diversifying our audience. At first it was planned that a microsite marking the anniversary of the passing of the Act of Parliament that abolished the trade should be built, and be broadly similar to the Web site which marked the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. It was considered essential that the development of any on-line resource associated with the anniversary should have at its core our archival material that reflects Parliament’s long engagement with that trade and which would support learning activities. The discovery of this material was greatly assisted by our catalogue; the full appreciation of the richness of our holdings on this subject was one of the many benefits of the project.

In essence the story the archival record tells is how Parliament at first encouraged and fostered the slave trade, and then became a platform by which the trade’s abolition could be secured. The documents therefore include Bills and Acts of Parliament which regulated the trade, and eventually ended it; the evidence during the parliamentary investigations; petitions supporting and opposing abolition; and other information collected by Parliament. The use of original documents provided an opportunity for us to address this difficult and sensitive subject in a totally honest and transparent manner, avoiding any sense of institutional self-congratulation. It was also intended that the archival material should be accompanied by items drawn from Parliament’s collections of works of art, which are administered by the Curator’s Office, in order to strengthen the site visually and provide context.

However, the author’s attendance at the Museums and the Web conference in Albuquerque in 2006, where the benefits for museums and archives of applying Web 2.0 techniques to projects were widely discussed, fundamentally altered the nature of the project. It was decided that the Web site should enable public interaction with the archival and museum content and that there should be an emphasis on explaining the work of the archives in ways that had not been attempted before. It was essential that the site should remain live after its launch, to facilitate the addition of more archival content, and content generated by users. This would mean that despite our limited staff resources, much more content could be added to the Web site than would have been the case using more traditional build techniques. This new approach to the project fitted particularly well with developments with respect to the parliamentary Web site which were demanding new content and fresh and innovative approaches to presenting that content.

The First Phase

In order to deliver the project, the Parliamentary Archives appointed the 24 Hour Museum (Culture 24) as producer of the microsite. This gave the project access to the expertise of the 24 Hour Museum team in terms of content development and the exploitation of cultural assets as learning resources. Build and design was undertaken by Simulacra (Lexara) and System Simulation. It was decided that in order to maximize publicity for the site, a preliminary version of the Web site would be launched to coincide with the actual anniversary of the passing of the Act of Parliament abolishing the slave trade: 25 March 1807. The full version of the Web site would go live at the same time as the opening of the Parliamentary exhibition The British Slave Trade: Abolition, Parliament and People which was due to open in Westminster Hall in May 2007. The exhibition presented an opportunity for crossover between the two projects in terms of content and design and meant that the Web site would provide a legacy of Parliament’s activities marking the anniversary. The appointment of a writer in residence to the exhibition meant that the Web site also had the potential to provide an on-line presence for a range of other activities associated with the exhibition.

A major part of the campaign to abolish, and indeed defend, the slave trade had been the use of petitions, signed by objectors to the trade as well as by those with a vested interest in it. After 1780, large quantities of these petitions were presented to Parliament and many have survived amongst the archives. It was decided that the largest of these, a petition from the inhabitants of Manchester in 1806 in support of the Foreign Slave Trade Abolition Bill, would form the basis of the preliminary Web site. Over 5 metres long, and made up of nine sheets of parchment stitched together, the petition contained approximately 2,000 signatures of individuals and clearly had great potential as a resource for family historians.

Figure 1

Fig 1: The 1806 petition from Manchester supporting abolition of the slave trade

In order to maximise its accessibility, the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society agreed to transcribe the names on the petition, using a network of volunteers. Once this had been completed the Society was able, in some cases, to provide further information about the signatories, such as their occupation and address. The same process was applied to a much smaller petition, this time from manufacturers and merchants in Manchester, which opposed the same Bill. Two days before the 25 March anniversary, the Web site containing the transcript of both petitions, which could be searched by visitors, went live, to considerable media interest.

The response to the petitions was immediate and came through the Your Voice mechanism on the site, an area designed to facilitate moderated feedback. Not only did genealogists report that they had been able to identify ancestors amongst the names, but also in many cases they were able to supply information about them. It was clear that for many, this had hit an emotional and very personal chord. One individual reported, “Thank you very much for publishing this. I feel very proud and humble now”. Taken together, these submissions represented a valid and significant community history contribution that would have been difficult to achieve in any other way, and one which originated from outside mainstream academic research.

The Second Phase

The build of the second phase of the Web site represented a major challenge, involving as it did contractors in three different locations in addition to the archive staff in London. In order to provide expert text to support the archival and museum content, a recognised academic authority on the subject, Professor James Walvin from the University of York, was employed to author sections of text. This was one of several links between the project and the Westminster Hall exhibition, for which Professor Walvin was consultant curator. Of the other links, design formed a very visual connection: the colour palette for the exhibition was successfully used to inform the design of the Web site, and the Web site carried information about the exhibition in order to try to increase footfall.

The most direct link was, of course, the content. Most of the exhibits in the exhibition were included in the Web site, including paintings, engravings, documents and other artefacts. Audio content was also used in this way. Of the museum artefacts, the most notable was the chest belonging to the abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. That chest, which is to be found in the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, proved to be ideally suited to the asset viewer technology employed on the Web site as a means of exploring all the items of content, whether they be paintings, documents or museum objects. In the case of Clarkson’s chest, images of specific items, such as an African loom or a quiver, were captured so that the chest’s contents could be explored in a way not possible in the exhibition ( objects/thomasclarksonsafricanbox.html?ref=true).

Figure 2

Figure 2: Thomas Clarkson’s chest

In order to tell the story of Parliament’s relationship with the slave trade, the content is divided into nine history sections, each sub-divided into chapters illustrating a particular theme. There is, however, a deliberate attempt not to resort to large amounts of narrative text, but to instead simply present the asset or learning object in question. For instance, an account of the sales of enslaved Africans at Jamaica in 1713, with contextual information, provides users with enough information to begin to explore the item and to ask questions and make comments, hopefully in a wider user enivironment. In some cases, brief notes by an archivist or curator provide insight into the provenance of the item, or the manner in which it is stored. Where possible, transcripts and the abilty to print high resolution files have been provided.

Figure 3

Fig 3: Home page, Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600-1807

The second phase of the Web site was launched at the same time as the exhibition: 23 May 2007. Between then and January 2008, the site has generated over 153,000 page views (Google analytics, 29 January 2008). : Visitors to the exhibition were encouraged to record their reactions to it in a specific section of Your Voice on the Web site, if possible by using PCs mounted in kiosks adjacent to the exhibition structure. This is, however, just one of several Your Voice threads which were designed to receive content generated by users ( One entitled What do you think? uses an audio recording to stimulate reactions to the material on the Web site, whilst another focuses on the Manchester petitions, and another on the content of Clarkson’s chest. This approach recognises that it is important to provide users with various ways of accessing the content; hence the use of the Explore area to highlight the favourite assets of those involved with the project, or categories of material, such as pictures, documents or sound. A later addition to Explore were the quilt squares which were designed by visitors to the exhibition during the UNESCO International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on 23 August 2007 ( commemorativequilt.html).

Figure 4

Figure 4: A quilt square

Underpinning the Web site is a commitment to ensuring that it operates as an effective learning resource. The potential of the resources to support learning is outlined in the Learning area (, where there are suggestions of specific ways they can support classroom activities. In the interactive studio, an on-line space has been provided where teachers can use the source material contained within the Web site to create a wide range of interactive resources, using simple tools. The capability of the Web site to support learning has been fully demonstrated by the work of the exhibition’s writer in residence, the poet Rommi Smith. Workshops led by Smith, involving children at a London school, produced poetry and prose inspired by the slave trade; this work has been included on the Web site, and an education pack which can be down loaded explains more fully how the subject of the slave trade can be explored in schools.


The use of documentary source material in on-line resources presents the custodian of those materials with a number of challenges. In some instances the documents, because of their visual appearance and layout, speak for themselves and offer themselves readily for interpretation. In other cases the items may be illegible, or unappealing to the eye, or difficult to capture digitally. In order to bring them to life and make them accessible, interpretative text is required, often written by expert historians and accmpanied by transcripts. As is demonstrated by the petitions from Manchester, imaginative approaches to the unlocking of manuscript resources can yield results that make the task well worth the effort.

There is no doubt that this resource worked very effectively in meeting the objectives of the Parliamentary Archives as well as functioning as a tool for marketing the exhibition and collecting feedback from visitors. The content of the Web site was considerably strenghtened by being able to draw on the exhibition content as well as the curatorial expertise that resided there. In turn, the Web site has become the natural home for the legacy of the exhibition, such as the educational activities and the quilt squares; it also provides a record of how Parliament commemorated the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. In a wider sense the project has reinforced the part that historical content has to play as part of the broader institutional picture, and future developments on the parliamentary Web site will reflect this.

The collection of user-generated content represents a step in a new direction for Parliament’s activities on the Web, but one which is now recognised as an essential component of those activities. Experience with this project suggests that if this is to work to its maximum potential, resources are required to nurture and encourage this interaction using specific groups of users, and to examine ways of integrating it with other social networking activities on the Web. This is is something that we will be exploring in future. There is no doubt that archives, because of their often direct connection with individual lives, contain the power to elicit a strong emotional response from those who come into contact with them, and thereby have the strenght to engage people with the subject matter. The power of Web 2.0, with its capability to connect communities of users, presents archivists with enormous possibilities for enabling access to the material in their care and for interpreting it in new ways.


I am grateful to Anra Kennedy of Culture 24 for reading and commenting on a draft of this paper.


Citizenship: A history of People, Rights and Power in Britain. Accessed 30 January 2008.

Google analytics account for Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600-1807. Accessed 29 January 2008.

The Gunpowder Plot: Parliament & Treason 1605. Accessed 30 January 2008.

Kennedy, A., D. Prior, A. Sawyer, and J. Pratty, J (2006). “Getting Archives on-line: Innovative concepts in interactive content bring to life the Gunpowder Plot of 1605”. In J. Trant & D. Bearman (Eds.) Museums and the Web 2006 Proceedings. CD ROM. Archives & Museum Informatics, 2006. Available:

Parliament and the British Slave Trade 1600-1807. Accessed 29 January 2008.

Parliamentary Archives. Home page. Accessed 30 January 2008.

Parliamentary Web site. Home page. Accessed 29 January 2008,

Portcullis catalogue. Accessed 30 January 2008.

Cite as:

Prior, D., Engaging Users With Archives: Parliament And the British Slave Trade 1600-1807, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted