Detailed review by fizzytom
Gateshead, United Kingdom
The rise of Britain’s great industrial cities is inextricably tied up in the slave trade. The 'dark satanic mills’ of the Lancashire towns processed the cotton that came from the southern states of America and the finished cloth was traded in grand Manchester warehouses. Visitors to Manchester’s splendid Exchange Theatre can see the sumptuous surroundings in which commodities were traded, a far cry from the terrible conditions endured by those unfortunate enough to be sold as slaves, sent across the ocean and force to live under conditions that are almost unimaginable.
The port city of Liverpool also grew prosperous on the back of forced labour. It is said that approximately three quarters of all European slaving ships over a course of about one hundred years, sailed from Liverpool, carrying a total of around 3 million African slaves. Especially around the areas of the Albert And Wapping Docks you'll see evidence of the other ways in which the trading across the Atlantic contributed to the city's wealth but it was slave trading that contributed most to Liverpool's development.
Slavery may have been abolished in 1833 (in Great Britain) and 1865 (in the united States) but its legacy lives on. It was only in the 1950s that black Americans were told where to sit on buses in some American states. There were recent reports of police discovering a site in Bedfordshire where 24 vulnerable men, many recruited from places like soup kitchens, were being kept as slaves, and the trafficking of women from eastern Europe and Africa in particular to work in prostitution continues to be one of the great scandals of our time. In Africa and South America hundreds of thousands of agricultural workers risk their health and earn a pittance so that we comparatively wealthy people in Western Europe and North America can eat cheap imported food; we may not think of this as slavery, but it is not very far removed.
Liverpool’s International Museum of Slavery explains the origins and practices of slavery, describes the campaign for its abolition and looks at the legacy of the slave trade, using a combination of primary and secondary sources, video clips, music, ceramics and other artefacts. Many of the exhibits are interactive and, despite the grave subject, the exhibition is presented in a way that can be appreciated by different age groups.
The museum developed out of an exhibition that was first shown in one of the galleries of the Liverpool Maritime Museum. It was an excellent exhibition that I saw myself many years ago but it has been expanded here to look at slavery in a wider context; the original exhibition focused more on Liverpool’s connections with the slave trade, an aspect which is, disappointingly in my opinion, not so prominent in the new museum.
The museum occupies the third floor of one of the buildings at the Albert Dock; it shares the building with the Maritime Museum. There is access by lift or stairs to all floors. Once you are on the third floor the walkways are all flat. An audio message at the start of the exhibition explains the various provisions in place for people with disabilities. This is all very admirable but Himself, who has a partial visual impairment did find that there wasn’t really enough light to read the texts (and there is quite a lot of written information around the exhibition).
The exhibition is divided into three main areas
- Life in West Africa
- Enslavement and the Middle Passage
- Legacies of Slavery
The first section looks first at West African culture and domestic life; I guess what they are saying is that the people that were taken from their homes and villages in Africa were ‘real people’ and we shouldn’t think of them just as slaves. The first waves of forced slavery happened at a time when most white people in Europe were God-fearing in the extreme and the bible stated that no man should be a slave to any other. By reducing the Africans to a condition that can only be described as sub-human, those who dealt in slaves and those who bought them and subjected them to degrading conditions on their farms and plantations in North and South America and the Caribbean, deluded themselves that those they mistreated were not men (or women) at all.
This section of the museum uses items such as handmade musical instruments, colourful textiles and a mock-up of a traditional West African mud built dwelling to demonstrate how the people who were seized from their homes and sold at slave markets were noble people with long-developed cultures (not that there was any group of people who could deserve to be treated in such a way).
'Enslavement and the Middle Passage' is a wide ranging exhibition that looks at, among many aspects of slavery, the conditions on board the ships as they crossed the Atlantic, what a plantation looked like, some of the methods used for punishing slaves who did not do what their masters demanded and how many slaves unable to carry on took their own lives. At the heart of this section of the museum is a very dramatic and moving walk-in presentation of what it would have been like on a slave ship. I would suggest that this is not suitable for young children and some of the scenes depicted are quite graphic.
The final section of the museum which looks at the legacies of slavery and how black people still have to face discrimination and racism many years after the abolition of slavery. It shows how the contribution of people from different parts of Africa has helped shape the culture of Europe and North America. The Civil Rights movement is covered in this part of the museum and these displays form some of the best parts of the whole exhibition. This part of the museum is much better lit and uses more interactive elements than the middle section which is rather dimly lit and text reliant. The 'Legacies' section uses recorded music - there are more than three hundred songs for you to choose from, all influenced by African music.
Another display looks at food that came originally from Africa but which we now use quite commonly in Europe and North America. There's a 'Black Achievers Wall' which shows portraits of a wide range of people such as politicians and campaigners, sportsmen and women, actors, musicians and - most notably for me - the brilliant Mary Seacole, the black nurse who went to the field hospitals during the Crimean War, she is not known well enough in my opinion.
At the end of the main exhibition there's a campaigns section which looks at different aspects of 'modern slavery'; at the moment they're focusing on Fair Trade and there's a very good series of short films looking at the oil production and agriculture in different parts of the world, explaining how many people involved in these industries are still exploited despite the official abolition of slavery. In a sense they're preaching to the converted, the people that really need to see this stuff probably wouldn't bother coming to this museum.
The museum claims that one of the highlights is the Freedom and Enslavement Wall; this greets visitors as they enter the third floor exhibition space and comprises various noble quotes about slavery and freedom and incorporates a couple of television screens showing lopped videos of a variety of people taking about slavery. I'm not sure that this is the highlight the museum curators believe it to be. The volume was too low without any way of improving it and the quotes are really difficult to read. I wouldn't be surprised if a few people didn't make it any further and that would be a shame because on the whole this is a really interesting exhibition.
I learned a lot from visiting the International Museum of Slavery but left feeling entertained too. The museum curators have achieved a good balance between highlighting the very grave aspects of this terrible trade and celebration of African culture. I would have liked to have seen a little more emphasis on Liverpool's part in the slave trade, especially as the city museums have never shied away from this before and it is integral to the city we see today.
Admission to all parts of the museum and to any temporary exhibitions is free. I'd say that overall, despite the odd issue such as poor lighting, this is the best nothing I've spent in a long time and I'd happily have paid to see this exhibition.
International Slavery Museum