The International Slavery Museum aimed ‘to promote theunderstanding of transatlantic slavery and its enduring impact.’ 1Whenconsidering the importance of the museums it is important to understand thatthe museum presents some fundamental key issues.
This focuses on thepresentation of both native Africans and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and thisessay will focus on examining each of these aspects. The museum itself aimed toprovide the audience with an insight into ‘the understanding of transatlanticslavery and its enduring impact’2.Itfocused on providing the audience with an experience for the lived of the’enslaved’ and the tough experiences they had faced. The museum is divided intothemes in which are separated into: Life in West Africa, Enslavement and theMiddle Passage and finally Legacy. The museum allow a greater understandinginto the greater depth of the stories and experiences of the ‘enslaved’.
Arguably, there are some limitations of the museum an example being the idea of’commemoration not celebration’, so the museum focuses on commemorating thepast events in particular the lives of the native Africans as well as thepresentation of the transatlantic slave trade throughout the museum.Furthermore, the museum allows the audience to gain an experience inunderstanding the message in which the museum was trying to convey for each ofthe key issues.The presentation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade within themuseum was a key issue when examining the display on ‘Enslavement and TheMiddle Passage’. This particular exhibition used the technique of the surroundingsto shed a light particularly on the experiences of the enslaved especially ontheir voyage trips. The museum focused both on colour and sound to reflect theexperiences of the enslaved and the dark colours within the displays created atone that which allowed the audience to gain a first-hand experience. Thecolour and sound created a combination as the mood of the colours reflected thescreaming and pain of the enslaved during the voyages to the Americas.
Walvin(2013) argues that many of the enslaved were ‘viewed merely as victims, withlittle role or agency in the entire story of enslavement and freedom’3.It can be argued that the exhibition to some extent creates the enslaved as’victims’ with the sound reflecting the pain as the screaming suggests a lackof freedom. The harsh conditions as well as the unsanitary surrounding oftenled to the ‘death of many millions’.
4Furthermore, it was also evidently clear that ‘Liverpool came to dominate theBritish Slave Trade’ 5andthe exhibition reflected much on the role of Transatlantic Slave Trade withinBritain during the 18th century. The museum presented the journey ofmany of the enslaved from Africa to the America as one which was regarded to bea negative experience and the struggles in which many had faced. Thepresentation of of Olaudah Equiano (a former slave) within the museum gave aninsight into the first-hand account and experience on life on the ships.Equiano (1789) states ‘This wretched situation was again aggravated by thegalling of the chains, now become insupportable…’ 6hisaccount allows an insight into the first-hand experience of a former slave whohad experienced the hardship that had come with the trade ships.
When examining the International Slavery Museum and importantfactor to consider is the way in which Trans-Atlantic Slavery was presentedwithin the museum. It can be regarded as an exhibition which heightens thetreatment of the enslaved with the objects that are included within thegallery. The ‘Shackles’ are a symbolic object as it presents the enslaved ashaving no ‘freedom’ (see in Appendix 1). The shackles themselves were ‘rustic’looking and looked rotten many of the enslaved were chained with one going ontheir hand and the other on their feet this was because there was a fear of theenslaved escaping and so the shackles signified that the enslaved were’trapped’.
The exhibition on ‘Enslavement and the Middle Passage’ included manyshackles throughout there was one figure in particular of an ‘Enslaved African breakingfree of his chains7′(see in Appendix 2). The judgment which can be formed from this figure is that thisis a ‘symbolic gesture’. The ‘shackles’ were presented throughout the museumthis could instigate that the enslaved were not treated in a fair manner andthe Africans were seen to be of an inferior status. Almost, as though theshackles had removed their identity and more importantly their freedom and themuseum did well in presenting this within the displays. Another interpretationis argued by Walvin (2013) states ‘Restraining the growing ranks of Africans bymanacles and chains was the only way in which small bands of sailors could hopeto maintain any semblance of control’8it suggests that in order for the ships to be running Africans needed to be’chained’ for many it created the atmosphere of a prison and within the museumthe videos explicitly show the Africans in pain as they try to break free fromthe violence similar to the figure that had been shown. The display on ‘Life in West Africa’ within the InternationalSlavery Museum presents the culture and life of the Africans before slavery.The museum presents the contrast of the two galleries with a difference incolour. The ‘Life in West Africa’ display includes colourful colours whichcreates an uplifting atmosphere and it unveils the ‘African culturalachievements before the arrival of Europeans and the start of the transatlanticslave trade.
‘9The Museum allows the recognition of the lives of Africans before slavery andhow their lives were lived so freely. This gallery further emphasised the powerand wealth of the West Africans and they also were popular with trade as theirwas ‘strong trade bonds between Europeans and Africans’ 10(Emmer2014;2009). This was ironic as not long after the Europeans began kidnappingthe Africans and their culture as well as identity was said to have been leftbehind. Many of the Europeans saw the Africans as uncivilised’, however theIgbo domestic architecture actually proves that they were infact’sophisticated’. The museum presents the Igbo architecture (see in appendix 3)as portraying the ‘wealth’ of the Africans as well as reflecting the views thatduring the early modern period the Africans were living in a free society andthe museum allows the understanding of a family unit of a titled Igbo man.
Thedisplay allows the audience into a greater understanding of the lives of WestAfricans before slavery and the impact in which many of the ‘enslaved’ face andhow their lives changed from the West African society to the ‘plantations’ inAmericas. The Africa exhibition was split into two with the livesbefore slavery and after the museum infact distinguished the two. The’plantation’ display had focused on portraying the audience with an atmosphereof darkness and this helped with experiencing the struggles in which many hadfaced. For many Africans the ‘Plantation owners wanted labour and justified thebarbarity of their treatment by using biblical arguments that Africans wereless than human’ 11asthis was reflected through the series of images which presented the conditionof the enslaved. Blassingame (1979) argues that many were ‘Captured and broughtto America under the most painful and bewildering conditions…’12this suggests that many of the Africans were kidnapped and sent to Americas towork on ‘the plantations’ and many faced hardship in comparison to their lives inWest Africa. As, they went from living a free life to becoming ‘enslaved’ andtheir freedom being removed from them. The image of the Africans working onplantations (see in appendix 4) allows the audience of the museum to understandthat they were under power of their masters and as Olaudah Equiano quoted ‘theslaves to be branded with the initial letters of their masters name; and a loadof heavy iron hooks hung about their necks’ this is infact reflected throughoutthe exhibition.
The image presents the master with ultimate control as thegesture of his hand could be understood to be an ‘order’ and the overallmessage in which the museum conveys is the change the Africans had faced andironically the exhibition reflects the reading in which I have read about thelives of the enslaved. The museum has used the technique of colour to create adifferentiation with the ‘positive’ life they once lived to now working onplantations with the dark atmosphere that creates negative connations. Duringthis period the ‘British American colonies demanded African slaves, the role ofthe African companies changed to supply them’13many of the Africans were sent to the Americas to work on either plantation orfactories and they were used as a source of labour. For many there is a loss ofidentity and culture are left behind as in the Americas they are identifiedwith another name and overtime their identity is completely removed.
1 International Slavery Museum. (2017). About theInternational Slavery Museum. Retrieved fromhttp://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/about/index.aspx.
2 International Slavery Museum. (2017). About theInternational Slavery Museum. Retrieved fromhttp://www.
3Walvin, J. (2013). Crossings:Africa, the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade.
London: Reaktion Books.Pg .124Understanding Slavery. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.
understandingslavery.com/5 Richardson, D., Schwarz, S., & Tibbles, A.
(2007). Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery. GB: LiverpoolUniversity Press.
Pg.46 International Slavery Museum. (2017). OlaudahEquiano – life on board. Retrieved fromhttp://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/middle_passage/olaudah_equiano.
aspx.7 International Slavery Museum. (2017). Figureof an enslaved African breaking free of his chains. Retrieved fromhttp://www.
8 Walvin, J. (2013). Crossings: Africa, theAmericas and the Atlantic slave trade. London: Reaktion Books. Pg .
919 International Slavery Museum. (2017). Life inWest Africa.
Retrieved fromhttp://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/visit/floor-plan/africa/index.aspx.10Emmer, P. C. (2014;2009).
Migration, trade, andslavery in an expanding world: Essays in honor of pieter emmer (1st ed.).Boston:BRILL.Pg.15011 International Slavery Museum. (2017). Life inplantations. Retrieved fromhttp://www.
liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/americas/plantation_life.aspx.12 Blassingame, J. (1979). Enslavement, Acculturation andAfrican Survials.
In J. Blassingame (Ed), The slave community: plantationlife in the antebellum South. Pg.713 The National Archives.
Britain and the Slave Trade.Retrieved from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/pdf/britain-and-the-trade.