The Society for Renaissance Studies’ biennial conference, ‘Difficult Pasts’, organised by the University of Liverpool and Liverpool John Moores University by Rebecca Bailey, Harald Braun, and Rachel Willie, enabled delegates to enjoy a varied and thought-provoking programme. Panels, roundtable discussions and workshops on an eclectic range of subjects were informed by current enquiry in Renaissance studies. Students, researchers and academics benefitted from an inclusive, collaborative environment where the sharing of ideas was embraced by all in attendance – either in-person or online. LJMU’s Student Life building was the perfect venue, offering formal spaces for academic debate, and informal areas for continuing conversations – complemented by outstanding catering.
Liverpool arguably epitomises the conference theme. Even though the city is associated with liberality and inclusivity, that has not always been the case. In the not-too-distant, difficult past, the ‘second city of the British Empire’ was inextricably linked with the transatlantic slave trade, the ghost of which remains in the city’s streets, buildings and legacies of many local families. A plenary roundtable, ‘Curating a Difficult Past: Transatlantic Slavery’, featuring Pedro Cardim (Universidade Nova de Lisboa), Corinne Fowler (Leicester), Miles Greenwood (International Slavery Museum), and Laura Sandy (Liverpool), and led by Richard Benjamin (Head of the International Slavery Museum) drew from the speakers’ experiences of curating artefacts that embody oppression, suffering, and abject violence, to discuss the continuing duty of contemporary institutions to convey difficult pasts through public spaces.
Plenaries by Herman Bennett (CUNY), Carmen Fracchia (Birkbeck), Islam Issa (Birmingham City), and Patricia Palmer (Maynooth) addressed topics that ranged from re-assessing European and African cross-cultural encounters in historical records and in visual culture, researching reception histories at a time of conflict in the Arab world, and uncovering hidden voices in the narrative of conquest and colonialism in early modern Ireland. Other fascinating sessions included a panel discussion on ‘The Politics of Exclusion and Imagining Barbary’ including papers on ‘Cervantes and the expulsion of the Moriscos’ and ‘The Shadow of Barbary in Thomas Tomkis’. ‘Donne’s Difficult Pasts’ was similarly absorbing in its reflections on Donne’s social, political and theological sermons, alongside his preoccupation with foul air, polluted rivers and coughing in church!
Personal highlights, based on my own research, were papers on galley ship slaves, Elizabeth I and notions of empire, Sidney and colonialism, perceptions of Englishness, travel and identity, Hakluyt and subjectivity, and Newfoundland’s role in England’s empire aspirations. For those delegates with boundless energy, there was also a range of extra-curricular activities: an opening reception at the Maritime Museum, a publishing workshop for early career academics, a book launch reception, a walking tour of Liverpool, after-hours access to the International Slavery Museum, a collection preview at Walker Art Gallery, a curated tour of the ceramics collection at the World Museum, and a conference barbeque. I have only one complaint: It was impossible to attend everything!
Rebecca Smith is a PhD candidate at Liverpool John Moores University