Liverpool’s role in the transatlantic slave trade was enormous, which is why the International Slavery Museum can be found it this city. Opened in 2007 on International Slave Remembrance Day, this free exhibit presents an intense and fascinating timeline of Black ancestry that magnifies the reality of the slavery experience and connects past with present.
Located on the Albert Dock, first impressions may be underwhelming when you realise it occupies only the third floor of the much larger Merseyside Maritime Museum; nevertheless you will find yourself spending a few hours amongst the compelling exhibits.
As was expected, the Enslavement and Middle Passage gallery is the most intense in its exploration of the slaves’ horrific journey across the Atlantic. The audiovisual displays are immersive, depicting plantation life, authentic sculptures, and paintings as well as a comprehensive account of Liverpool’s rise to become a major trade port. At the centre of the gallery is a two-minute film clip that conveys the brutal reality of the slave experience aboard the ships, which is the most graphic and impressive display. It is hard-hitting and the sound effects can be heard throughout the gallery, which could be why I didn’t see many people going in.
What is particularly memorable in the Legacy gallery is William Windus’ portrait, The Black Boy, which features a young subject who is said to be an African stowaway that arrived in Liverpool. It stands out for its authenticity; whilst the Enslavement and Middle Passage section generally revises the Year Eight syllabus in terms of information, this portrait – specifically the subject’s innocent facial expression – engages the viewer with the full human significance of the slave trade.
There is more to be learnt from the Legacy gallery, which depicts the lasting impact of the slave trade and racism long after abolition. The Fight for Freedom and Equality wall is an essential timeline that neatly tracks the progress of civil rights activism, from early slavery revolts to 20th Century movements; it relates the past to the present in such a way that brings clarity to the entire historical struggle. However, despite not expecting to see any reference to the current climate of racial tensions, there is little mention of the current decade, and so an update is essential.
The highlight of the museum’s contemporary focus is the Black Achievers’ Wall, simply because its celebration of black figures across a number of disciplines is incredibly inspiring. Likewise, a celebration of African music’s influence in contemporary genres can be found at the Music Desk. The museum’s temporary exhibitions, including one that explores slavery in modern India, are also worth a visit.
‘Life in West Africa’ presents the continent’s civilisation and society prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Despite the fascinating sculptures and artefacts, the exhibit could have done more to emphasise just how wealthy and powerful Africa’s kingdoms were before the slave trade. It is also the least interactive gallery, and so while the rest of the museum piques your interest with audiovisuals, it is easy to pass through here without paying much attention. What I found most memorable was the wall inscription, ‘Africa is the cradle of civilisation: we are all descendants of Africans’. It is simple, relevant, and aside from those on the Freedom and Enslavement wall at the entrance, is one of the most powerful quotes in the museum.
The International Slavery Museum is an incredibly valuable resource for comprehending the slave trade and its long term effects. Nevertheless at times the information itself may seem sugarcoated, and in an attempt to cover all bases of the timeline, the museum sacrifices depth.
Feature image by Jordan Stewart.