Saturday, June 6, 2009

The International Slavery Museum, Liverpool

The most unsettling museum I have ever visited has to be the International Slavery Museum at Albert Dock, Liverpool. (Auschwitz can't be regarded as a museum) The relatively small space is filled with exhibits, visual, aural and video and there is a constant barrage of information in the dimly lit area - one horror after another.

The display galleries concentrate on the history of transatlantic slavery, its many legacies, and the wider issue of freedom. They explore the story of transatlantic slavery from the complex and vital cultures of West Africa before the coming of the Europeans, through the horrific middle passage on board ship, to life in the Americas.

The question which arises is the same question when you consider any of the great injustices of the past, Irish or international - How was it allowed to happen? It also raises the question of the guilt of the first world in the present condition of so many of the countries from which slaves originated.

The museum does outline the long history of determined and relentless resistance to enslavement, and how enslaved people themselves contributed to gaining their eventual freedom. It also celebrates the cultural contribution made by people of slave origin.

The museum, opened on 23 August 2007, explores the important role that Liverpool played in the trade. The location is only yards away from the dry docks where 18th century slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out.

"Make no mistake, this is a museum with a mission. We wish to help counter the disease of racism, and at the heart of the museum is a rage which will not be quieted while racists walk the streets of our cities, and while many people in Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, continue to subsist in a state of chronic poverty. This is not a museum that could be described as a 'neutral space' - it is a place of commitment, controversy, honesty, and campaigning" - transcript of the speech given by David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, at the gala dinner to celebrate the opening of the International Slavery Museum on 22 August 2007.

This New York Times report on the museum is a good summary and gives the feeling well. BBC news report on the museum containing a video tour here. Penny Lane, the street made famous in song by The Beatles is named after a Liverpool slave ship owner and anti-abolitionist. Poem Middle Passage by American poet Robert Hayden.

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