The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

A while ago now we mentioned on the blog that the International Museum of Slavery had opened in Liverpool, recieving very positive reviews. A couple of weekends ago I went along to the museum with my parents to see how the museum had tackled the sensitive and challenging subject - we were all hoping for good things having enjoyed the Maritime Museum in Liverpool many times previously. Rather than giving a blow by blow account of our visit I thought I would just list my main thoughts and feelings that came out of the couple of hours we spent there. We could have spent more time so I definitely recommend that you visit if you are ever in Liverpool.

The International Slavery Museum is located in the main museum complex in the Albert Docks on the third floor, a much better position then the former basement gallery which always made me feel a bit oppressed. Not that the new gallery is very welcoming; reaching the top of the stairs you are confronted with a stark layout with the gallery's mission statement in front of you and walls of TV screens that creates a discordant assault on the senses. We were at first completely baffled as to where we supposed to go until we realised that 'instructions' were on the TV screen to one side. So far, not so good and it set a pattern for the experience. My dad felt quite strongly that the exhibition lacked a strong narrative and although I could see what the museum was trying to do, I did agree with him. There was little attempt to question slavery in general which would have helped to provide a context into which Transatlantic slavery could be placed. Instead it launched straight into the African experience. Now I agree that it is one of the worst examples of slavery ever committed by one society over another and the exhibition was right to concentrate on that story... I guess they did not want to 'dilute' its power. However it would have been good to have more of an overview of sorts. And if there was I did not see it.

For me what the museum did well was to present transatlantic slavery in a thoughtful way using a variety of methods that should appeal to most ages. As an overview of the issues it was more than adequate and there was a wealth of material on display. Models helped to illustrate some concepts visually such as the model of a plantation. This conveyed to me how organised these places were - rather like the concentration camps in museums about the second world war it always strikes fear into me at how organised humans are at exploiting other human beings. Whole systems like the transatlantic slave trade have sprung up from relatively small beginnings and effectively justified inhumane practices for the sake of profit. Even if these practices were legal and accepted at the time - one reason why some people fail to see why such museums as this are useful - I fail to see how we can be neutral about them... like or not exploitation is a big part of our history and to ignore it would be ignoring that most societies are based on exploitation whether of humans, animals or the environment. Too harrowing for me however was a film at the centre of the room which attempted to recreate the conditions for slaves on a ship, all crushed together and treated like animals. Of course it was only a 'Hollywood-ised' sanitised version of a slave ship (no vomit, excrement, beatings etc) but it was still too voyeuristic for me and I could not bear to watch it for more than a second or two. I felt that the experience was already emotional enough without it being recreated for you visually but maybe that was just me.

History is brought it bang up to date by examining some of the legacy of the slave trade - rather crudely (perhaps) contrasted to the rest of the museum with the use of brighter colours, music and exhibits that focus on Black culture and icons. There was a thoughtful look at the less savoury legacies such as racism and continuing 'slavery' in the form of 'Third World' poverty and war. Plus plenty of space was provided for visitors to reflect on the issues raised, a nice touch.

I was interested how focusing on slavery brings a new perspective to local history. The exhibition brings into sharp relief the extent to which Liverpool's former glories are thanks to slavery, when it took over from Bristol in the eighteenth century. A list of street names and their link to the slave trading past was most illuminating because it conveyed how pervasive the profits from slavery had been. Rather like us now naming a street after Primark or another high street chain whose profits come from sweatshops, a modern form of slavery it could be argued... Still, the trouble with seeing history through one 'prism' as such means that the museum can be accused of telling one story but I think as neutral as you can be about the subject (these are human beings after all) the museum achieved a good balance.

What didn't I like so much? Well the overall presentation was not very user friendly at times and my poor dad could hardly read any of the text panels and so got very little from it. The use of interactives and jumbled display panels / images is pretty dated and there was nothing new here that made me think 'wow.' Also it was quite light on the human story, I found out relatively little about the abolition movement and did not connect in any way to the slaves who suffered, fought for and won their freedom, or the campaigners who helped them. It was therefore a curiously empty experience. Also conspicuous by its absence was the link between Social Darwism, eugenics and the segregation and discrimination against Black people which grew up partly as a justification of slavery and prejudice.
I expect that many people will hate this liberal hand-wringing because it is supposed to make us hate ourselves for the guilt but too be honest I did not think the museum was blaming anyone. It treats slavery as a complex subject and whilst this gives us no strong narrative (sorry dad) it does give a more accurate view of the situation. Whilst we cannot change the past we can change the future so that this does not happen again and I feel hopeful that museums such as this can help us to face difficult areas of the past and recognise them for what they were, an episode in our history which we accept but are not proud of. Slavery in that sense is as British as fish and chips... now wouldn't that be a good tagline for the museum?


Unknown said…
Thanks for the review - it sounds very interesting and I must try to arrange to visit sometime.

You raise an interesting point about voyeurism when you talk about the reconstruction. In many ways it's even more of an issue when presenting contemporary issues. Would it be 'voyeuristic' to present images from the life of a woman trafficked into domestic slavery, for example? Would this help raise awareness of the issues, or result in a lack of dignity for the people on display? I've been grappling with this in writing my own thesis: is a museum of immigration that glosses over the horrible conditions experienced by migrant workers living in crowded, poorly maintained hostels misleading visitors or being respectful of the residents? I volunteered for a bit in a hostel; I was never invited to see the living quarters and I think the residents I knew would have been horrified at the thought that the squalor they were forced to endure would be publicly displayed, especially to women (they were all men). But then how can an important story about housing and exploitation be told? How can we strike an appropriate balance?

Annie Coombes has some suggestions in her book 'History after Apartheid': the people in question must be fully informed about the museum's purpose and should be asked to contribute in a way that foregrounds their agency and enables them to retain control. But I'm not necessarily sure what this means in practice in the long term. Thoughts?
The Attic said…
I agree - the question of voyeurism is one worth tackling. And yep, those affected need to be involved and have a say over what is represented by museums, and how. But, at the same time, I think it would be possible - and is important, in many ways - to make reference to and highlight aspects of modern-day slavery. Not least to reinforce the fact that slavery was not consigned to history with the abolition of transatlantic slavery (as recent publicity might lead some to believe). Plus, there's the danger that the racist sterotypes constructed and perpetuated by slavery are reinforced, without a wider discussion of slavery as a global and ongoing global issue. There's a similar issue related to representations of the Holocaust (as our colleague Heather has shown); exhibitions focus almost without exception on the Jewish experience, but largely ignore that of the other victims of the 'final solution' (the disabled, homosexuals, Roma, etc). In a similar way, slavery more generally could become a black and white (pun intended) issue. Which is to deny the experiences of other enslaved and exploited people across time and space. That's not to say that the horrors and legacy of transatlantic slavery should be, in any way, played down. It represents the largest incidence of enslavement by one people over another in history, just like the majority of the victims of the Holocaust were Jewish. But others, who remain disenfranchised and marginalised by the grand narratives, also need to be given the opportunity (and they might choose not to) to tell their stories.

Cor, this discussion really excites me. If only I wasn't already two years into my PhD, I might consider changing my research area!!!
The Attic said…
As to how to put these grand plans into practice, Heather, I know, is very busy with work and life in general at the moment, but I might see if she's willing to 'pop' in and talk a little about her current project which makes use of emancipatory research methodology - something little used, I believe, outside disability studies. Might be of interest to/useful for you Mary.
Ceri said…
Thanks for reading!

I have been thinking this over the past few days and although I don't really have a strong stance. I like the fact that the museum does not shy away from the harsher aspects of slavery, the only issue for me was that it did not go far enough in some respects. That 'yuck' factor I felt was perhaps positive in the sense that slavery is meant to cause revulsion... economic necessity however makes it a useful system to continue. Of course some people would have the opposite effect and not feel anything but everyone is different and hence the reason why museums now (fortunately) try out all different kinds of things to reach people. I thought that was one positive thing about the slavery museum. I think because these people existed in the past we feel less concerned about representing the 'shame' of their lives whereas as you say Mary it could be more problematic to represent someone still alive. And at the end of the day for me the strongest impression I had of slaves was as victims and that is NOT the impression that the museum wanted to give. So by creating the most emotional area as how they were treated by the slaveoweners, rather than having say a film of a freed slave giving a speech etc, they have defeated their object. And that only struck me now!

And yes I do feel that by calling themselves an International slavery museum but only dealing with one story currently is perhaps misleading. A good beginning but lets hope it does not become the kind of static, fixed experience which quickly becomes dated.

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