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?