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Museums of the People, by the People, for the People

Richard Benjamin argues that as museum professionals we must look at ourselves, our curatorial practices, exhibition programming, acquisitions polices, educational activities, and all client services such as marketing and development and ask ourselves – who is this for? Are we honestly able to say, when we develop and eventually make some form of narrative available to the public, through our displays and programmes, that we are democratic and speaking on behalf of the masses? This essay will focus on issues, concerns and the actions of the International Slavery Museum (ISM) to address these challenges.

ISM opened on 23 August 2007. Not only was 2007 the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade act but a day designated by UNESCO as Slavery Remembrance Day, the anniversary of an uprising of enslaved Africans on the island of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) in 1791. A strong reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation. Each year National Museums Liverpool (NML) commemorates Slavery Remembrance Day with a series of events culminating in a traditional libation on the waterfront. The day commemorates the many lives lost as a result of the transatlantic slave trade, it remembers Liverpool’s role as the main British slaving port, and also celebrates the survival and development of African and Caribbean cultures.

ISM highlights the international importance of slavery, both in a historic and contemporary context. Working in partnership with other museums and institutions with a focus on freedom and enslavement, the International Slavery Museum provides opportunities for greater awareness and understanding of the legacy of slavery today. It is located on Liverpool’s Albert Dock, at the centre of a World Heritage site and only yards away from the dry docks where eighteenth century slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out.

Let me briefly put Liverpool into some context. By the 1780s Liverpool was considered the European capital of the transatlantic slave trade. Vast profits from the trade helped to physically transform Liverpool into one of Britain’s most important and wealthy cities. Other European ports were heavily involved too, but in total more than 5,000 slave voyages were made from Liverpool. Overall, Liverpool was responsible for half the British slave trade, and her ships carried perhaps 1.5 million enslaved Africans into slavery. The stark fact is that Liverpool was quite simply, at the epicenter of the transatlantic slave trade.

This is the reason why ISM is ideally placed to elevate this subject onto an international stage. NML’s previous focus on slavery, the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, which opened in 1994 in the basement of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, won worldwide recognition and was central to the development of the International Slavery Museum. After more than a decade not only did the gallery need updating but the decision was taken that the subject of slavery needed greater recognition with a museum in its own right. One that would be three times the size of the previous gallery and moved into a more prominent position on the third floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum.

The main objectives of the new museum was to inform and help visitors understand the history of transatlantic slavery and the wider issues of freedom and injustice; challenge preconceptions, prejudice and ignorance; encourage visitors to regard transatlantic slavery and its consequences as a shared history with shared responsibility for addressing its legacy in the modern world; interpret, in an open and honest manner, Liverpool’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and its impact on the economic and cultural growth of the city (Fleming, 2005). From the beginning there were plans to develop ISM into more than display galleries.

By 2008 NML had purchased the iconic Dock Traffic Office on the Albert Dock, which is adjacent to the Merseyside Maritime Museum. This building will become the new International Slavery Museum entrance and will accommodate education and research facilities, a resource centre and community spaces. The resource centre will give visitors access to slavery-related digital archives, Black British multimedia and human rights films and documentaries. It will also enable visitors to research family and local history. In essence, we want the museum to be seen as a resource, a tool to use in a multitude of ways, ways that are not led by museum professionals but which are gently oiled and well maintained. The museum needs to develop into the kind of organism most suited to the environment of the day. In light of sweeping cuts within the public sector from 2010, this could simply be a free day out as well as a journey of exploration through the subject or tracing ones family history.

Although a museum international in scope it is first and foremost one which aims to be embraced by the local community and which through its permanent displays, exhibitions, publications and educational activities contributes to a changing public social agenda. That is, to become a tool for members of the public to use in such a way that will not only enhance their understanding of the past but how that past, and the many legacies which come with it, affect their current day-to-day activities, opportunities and aspirations. One of the ways in which we as a museum aim to do this is to become an active supporter and vehicle of social change and indeed political campaigner in the field of human rights.

However, there is a school of museological thought which disagrees that it is the duty of a museum to actively engage with political issues, but rather be a neutral space for visitors to gain an objective view of the subject matter. I disagree and feel that museums are by their very nature active agents of social change and should actively seek to do so. David Fleming – Director of National Museums Liverpool – noted during his speech at the opening of the International Slavery Museum that “This is not a museum that could be described as a ‘neutral space’ – it is a place of commitment, controversy, honesty, and campaigning” (Fleming, 2007). Marstine (2006: 2) had earlier echoed these sentiments: “Museums are not neutral spaces that speak with one institutional, authoritative voice. Museums are about individuals making subjective choices”.

Alongside this, museum professionals and visitors alike should be conscious of the words of the historian Eric Foner who notes that “History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten, in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies, and new political, social, and cultural imperatives” (Foner, 2002: xvii). Museum professionals are guardians of one snapshot of history, one that according to David Lowenthal is “imbuing the past with present-day intention” (2003: 356) and should make it very clear that the museum is not the final word on a subject or theme. It merely conveys to the best of the museum staffs abilities what Foner (Ibid) calls a “reasonable approximation of the past”.

Ownership and voice
Ownership and voice need to be at the forefront of any ISM planning, of the collections and museum strategy. For ISM dismissing the neutrality myth is sacrosanct, only when this happens can you truly have democratic dialogue & debate within the museum, from new displays, object acquisition and exhibition programming. These discussions were central to the development of one of the more disturbing yet constructive juxtapositions within ISM – the relationship between the Ku Klux Klan outfit, which was donated to the International Slavery Museum in 2007, just a few months before opening and our Black Achievers Wall within the Legacy Gallery. This juxtaposition lends itself to the words of Barbara Little – Editor of CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship (2010: 4) who notes: “Our experiences with our histories can leave us both heartened and dismayed, sometimes simultaneously.”

In various community consultation sessions arranged prior to opening on 23 August 2007 a recurring theme was that the museum had to carefully balance the horror and often visceral presentation of transatlantic slavery against a backdrop of resistance and indeed African and Black achievement. It was a challenge but one we managed to get just about right. It is a simple display in a sense and it does exactly what it says, it is a Black Achievers Wall, encompassing achievement across the arts, sciences and sporting world. It is just one of several attempts at addressing, and challenging, the very real issue of leaving the museum and associating African and Black history with transatlantic slavery solely, or indeed with a solely negative history.

This is especially the case for those, of all ages, who know very little about the subject of transatlantic slavery or indeed African history before their visit to the museum. It is a balancing act, the ISM team utilising all the tools at our disposal, such as working with some of the leading experts in the field, and allowing visitors to understand amongst other things British and European involvement in transatlantic slavery and their role in the enslavement of Africans, but at the same time, making Africa and Africans the central agents of the whole museum narrative. One of the ways to do this is to start with areas of achievement, often born out of resistance, a starting point to the narrative of transatlantic slavery and its legacies, a way for some audiences in essence, to begin their journey, their dialogue with the subject.

The Ku Klux Klan outfit is central to our Racism and Discrimination section of the Legacy Gallery, which also includes a number of objects which depict racist and stereotypical imagery, as well as multimedia presentations depicting subjects such as the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the killing of the young Black British man Anthony Walker in 2005, who gives his name to the learning base within ISM, the Anthony Walker Education Centre. The family of Anthony were originally contacted to seek permission (not legal but moral) to use footage and images relating to a press conference given by the family. Anthony’s mother and sister visited the museum and saw the rushes of the film. Their support was given. It is indeed difficult to measure the understanding and communicating of the value of museums’ work to the public, however, when the sister of Anthony recently referred to the Anthony Walker Education Centre as ‘my brother’s room’ there had indeed been a very satisfying and thought provoking shift of ownership taking place.

It was a significant step for the museum not only to seek out legal permission but moral permission from relatives of an individual featured within the display galleries. Not only was this done because the family lived in the Liverpool area but it seemed only right, especially when ISM enthusiastically claims that we are not neutral. The fact that we see ourselves as a campaigning museum, actively getting involved in local and national issues and partnering like minded organisations like the Anthony Walker Foundation in Liverpool hit home during a presentation to prisoners at HMP Garth in Lancashire about transatlantic slavery and its legacies.

As part of the talk I discussed why we named our learning base after Anthony Walker. In the group were three men from Liverpool who knew the individual convicted of his murder. They claimed that the museum was helping stigmatise the accused as a racist for the rest of his life. I countered that he had been convicted of a racially motivated attack but they were adamant he was not. Our views may have been poles apart but they had to begrudgingly agree with me that at least we were having an open discussion about it, something which they had only done because a museum was being used as a conduit for that discussion.

As soon as one walks into the Legacy Gallery it is difficult not to catch a glimpse of the Black Achievers Wall, it has a central prominent position. It sits close to the Ku Klux Klan outfit but is not dominated by it – achievement versus oppression. Further investigation of this gallery would also allow you to interact with our Cultural Transformation section of which our Music Desk, looking at the global influence of African music, is a central and popular feature.

One example of the way this section is used was a recent collaboration between the International Slavery Museum and the Aim Higher Reaching High Project which aims to support young Black males from Merseyside to achieve a university education. This particular project had a number of objectives such as the exploration of historic influences of Black music and the connection to the contemporary music scene; to explore how to engage young people with culture and cultural organisations and most excitingly, to develop new musical content for the Music Desk.

Even though the youngsters involved with the project visited ISM on several occasions, engaged with museum staff and produced a professionally recorded end product, there was some discussion whether the final product was possibly too mainstream. It did not seem to have the edginess one associates with urban music, an underground sound of disillusioned youth. However, the ISM team took a step back and realised this was exactly the kind of attitude and broad generalisation which the museum aimed to challenge. The idea that new urban Liverpool music would not be influenced by an earlier underground genre developed in the UK such as Grime was a surprise, yet it should not have been. The very fact that new urban music was most definitely influenced by recognisable mainstream music is an indicator of the cultural and musical development and identity of Black youths in Liverpool.
Thankfully our preconceived ideas of urban music did not affect the outcome of this musical journey; the end product was undiluted to suit the tastes of the museum staff. I believe that a non-manipulated output, one which has not been made to fit into a radical campaigning museum agenda, allows the museum to say that this project was as democratic as possible.

What use is a museum anyway?
The International Slavery Museum has a leading role to play in the fight to stop the growth of racism and racist attitudes. Let us not forget that transatlantic slavery has left an extremely damaging and dangerous legacy of racism. As such we must tap into the way that museum visitors interact with the entire museum experience to gain results. As Allison & Gwaltney (1991: 69) point out: Most visitors are collecting impressions and experiences that will “make sense” later in conjunction with other experiences and activities in their lives.

Initial evaluation at ISM, carried out by the 1807 Commemorated Project, noted just over sixty-eight per cent of respondents did not consider at the time that the visit to the museum had changed their views about the past or even more importantly the present (Smith and Cubitt, 2009: 107). Now there might be a plethora of reasons for this, however, the fact remains, for ISM to be a campaigning museum, which is actively trying to get the public ‘involved’, information about a subject or exhibition, not only text based but cognitively, has to be taken away with the visitor, who then, when exposed to their normal surroundings and lives, can reignite, revisit and respond to what the museum has to say. In other words, the museum needs to speak with them on their own terms. Theoretically one way for this to happen is for institutions such as museums to be overtly visible within communities at the frontline of vehement racist political propaganda in regions for instance where the British National Party aims to rally support. In essence, museums must get involved in the great social and political debates and indeed challenge those who aim to stifle real social cohesion.

The International Slavery Museum, a museum that recognises the fundamental need for social issues to be challenged and addressed can indeed lead on the discussion and become a place where Black Minority Ethnic communities for instance can use the museum as a resource and tool to highlight their own, rather than their perceived, societal priorities.
One of the most challenging ways that ISM is currently looking to be a democratic museum is in the development of its contemporary slavery collection and accompanying Campaign Zone, a newly developed exhibition and community space which will highlight current human rights campaigns with accompanying community and education programmes. The first exhibition, ‘Home Alone: End Domestic Slavery’ highlights a two year Anti-Slavery International campaign intended to raise awareness about the plight of domestic workers in the UK and internationally. Historically, domestic work has been a sector which is vulnerable to abuse, and this is still the case today. Domestic workers lack legal protection and the campaign is hoping to bring about a change in the law to protect domestic workers in the UK and abroad.

It is an exhibition that makes a clear statement that the museum is actively campaigning. One has to be prepared though for members of the public, especially core visitors, visitors with families and even school groups, unused to seeing such hard-hitting, up-to-date and often disturbing exhibitions about current issues in a museum, and at the same time asking them to get involved in a campaign, feeling out of their comfort zone. As such, visitor figures could indeed be affected. That said it is something that we must be prepared to accept if we want the museum to cater for all members of the public, particularly on behalf of the invisible visitor, those that might not even have the basic human right to make a visit to a museum.

Our aim is also to develop new collections of local, national and international importance which reflect the legacies of transatlantic slavery, the African Diaspora and slavery in today’s world. We are currently actively looking to enhance and expand the museum’s contemporary slavery collections and recently acquired several ankle bracelets, which had been collected by Anti-Slavery International, and ‘worn’ by modern day domestic slaves in Niger. As a team we have discussed in detail where this type of collecting policy might lead the International Slavery Museum and it can indeed be a dark place. Do we for instance exhibit personal effects of victims of the Morecambe Bay Cockling tragedy in 2004 where twenty-three Chinese workers were drowned during rising tides to highlight the exploitation of workers by gang masters? Would the contents of a raided brothel highlight the blight of human trafficking? Difficult decisions which need addressing by the museum, but one which does have experience and indeed the resources to do so.

As our contemporary slavery collection grows, as our partnerships with human rights organisations develop, we will have to make difficult decisions about just how much of these issues we can display and expose our visitors to. Human trafficking, bonded labour and slavery in all its forms is not a new phenomenon but internationally there is a renewed interest by governments, for a number of reasons, in this area. As such the museum must seize on this to try and gain maximum publicity and effect, just as the various human rights organisations themselves will.

Concluding remarks
In a truly democratic museum, one where museums are truly of the people, by the people, for the people, museums must act for the silent, the invisible and the forgotten as well as the current types of visitors who on the whole, have the basic freedom of choosing to visit the museum. The rising visitor figures in this age of austerity show that people still value museums, they value our expertise, and they value the opportunity to see, feel and touch the past, albeit a past firmly anchored in the nuances of today but here in Liverpool, we aim to also keep the visitors very much in the present. To inform and hopefully to inspire them to action. This policy might well openly challenge current UK government thinking on certain issues and at a recent Migrant Workers’ Rights Conference held at ISM the general feeling by several speakers was that the current and indeed previous British government has a de facto support of slavery by the foreign and domestic policies it has in place which focus on human rights and indeed areas such as immigration. If the museum disagrees with such policies, we must say so loud and clear, and suffer the consequences of that action. However, only by having such convictions can we as a museum be truly democratic.

Dr Richard Benjamin
Head, International Slavery Museum

Notes | References | Bibliography

Allison, DK and Gwaltney, T 1991, How People Use Electronic Interactives: “Information Age – People, Information & Technology” In Bearman, D, ed 1991, Hypermedia & Interactivity in Museums, Proceedings of an International Conference, Pittsburgh: Archives & Museum Informatics, 1991.

Fleming, D 2005, Liverpool: European Capital of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, paper given at the annual conference of International Association of City Museums, Amsterdam, 3 November 2005.

Fleming, D 2007, Opening of the International Slavery Museum, viewed 31 August 2010, <>.

Foner, E 2002, Who Owns History? Rethinking the past in a Changing World, Hill and Wang, New York.

Little, B 2010, CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship, Vol. 7 Number 1, Winter 2010.

Marstine, J 2006, New Museum Theory and Practice, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Lowenthal, D 2003, The Past is a Foreign Country, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Smith, LJ and Cubitt, G 2009, 1807 Commemorated Project Report: International Slavery Museum, University of York.

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