If a Liverpool cityscape springs to mind, it surely includes the Three Graces: the trio of grand, century-old buildings that line the Pier Head. Liverpool’s waterfront sentinels no longer tower over their neighbors as they did even a decade ago. To the south, they’ve been joined by the limestone Museum of Liverpool and the dark glass exterior of the Mann Island Buildings. To the north and east, new apartment complexes have appeared. In old photographs, the Graces always seem an odd assemblage: out of sync in size with everything around them, but also never making a cohesive whole. Today, these sentinels look crowded in, obsolete, embarrassed by what’s become of them. Framed by glass and steel buildings, ignored by locals on their shopping sprees, they resemble outmoded angels, looking backward and sensing an era’s end.
Not to get sentimental over sentinels. Though it’s interesting to see these iconic structures, I’ve come here to visit a museum down the road at Albert Dock that commemorates one of the trades that helped build (at least indirectly) those impressive if incongruous giants. In the mid-1990s, the Merseyside Maritime Museum opened an exhibition on Britain’s role in the slave trade. It was about time: eighteenth-century Liverpool, more so than Bristol or London, provided the ships and capital that sustained the British slave trade. Local investors in the sale of human flesh made enormous fortunes, and many became municipal leaders.
Because of its popularity and recognized importance, the exhibition grew into a separate entity. In 2007, the International Slavery Museum opened on the Maritime Museum’s third floor. The year was significant: two hundred years before, the slave trade was abolished in Britain—abolished legally, anyway; as the museum shows, the 1807 Slave Trade Act did little to stop illegal activities. Though the International Slavery Museum and Maritime Museum are now distinct organizations, many visitors will move between the two without reflection. And there is much to learn about the maritime wonders of Liverpool’s seaside history on the other floors: deco travel posters, evocative paintings of famous ships, exhibitions on the Lusitania and (of course) the Titanic—all reminders that, for most of human existence, migration required ships, whether to cross an ocean or a wide river. Downstairs there is an exhibition on migrants who chose to start a new life. But today I’m most interested in those who didn’t have a choice.
The simple fact that a museum exists to explore the forced migration of millions of people, and the ongoing ramifications of that extraordinary occurrence, is reason to celebrate. But it also brings up difficult questions. What is the work of such a museum? Atonement? Awareness? Who is its primary audience? Liverpool, the United Kingdom, Atlantic peoples, or should it make an effort to be truly global? Should such a museum limit itself to an in-depth, careful study of the historical European slave trade, or should it be equally interested in migrants and workers who suffer slave-like conditions today?
I study the British Romantic era—the literature and history of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century—so the museum’s historical setting is one I know pretty well. As someone who has lived and worked (comfortably, by choice) in four continents, I’m also interested in contemporary ideas about migration, national and ethnic identity, and the art, architecture, and literature that arise from shifting communities. But grand gestures and big ideas usually make me uncomfortable—even when I believe in them. So I approach the International Slavery Museum with some trepidation.
Exiting the elevator on the third floor, I’m confronted with a wall of pithy sentences about freedom interspersed with video screens where famous and everyday people comment on the slave trade and its progeny. The number of Americans represented here—as in United States Americans—is striking. Barack Obama, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass. Of course, most African Americans are descended from slaves, and it’s certainly true that the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights movement had a profound global impact on how minority peoples see themselves. But the celebratory prevalence of Americans, here and elsewhere in the museum, feels odd. The links between Liverpool, or even the United Kingdom, and the history of slavery immediately seem tenuous.
The museum proper is separated into three galleries: first, an exploration and celebration of West African culture; second, a display on the history of Europe’s slave trade, with a focus on Liverpool’s place in that trade; and third, an investigation of the aftereffects of slavery—how the legacies of forced migration and slavery continue to shape our world. This last gallery opens out to question trade of all kinds: during my visit in early January, temporary exhibits explored the human cost of oil production in the Niger Delta and the use of child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry.
The historian in me wishes that the opening gallery gave a more precise idea of life in eighteenth-century West Africa. While I recognize the importance of displaying the richness and variety of West African culture, the exhibit felt too scattered; the works didn’t coalesce into a bigger picture. There is also a danger that such a display creates a false sense of an Edenic Africa before European occupation. I found the following galleries more successful, but also problematic. In the second gallery, an interactive screen follows an actual slave ship’s year-long voyage: the two-month journey from Liverpool to the coast of Africa, the six months in port trading European wealth for human beings, the two-month journey to the Caribbean where enslaved Africans were sold, and then home to pay investors and do it all over again. And again. According to the ship’s records, a crew of three dozen transported some three hundred Africans, forty of whom died on the miserable journey, while the rest surely suffered a lifetime of physical and mental torment far from home. This is basic but important information, and when one imagines the banal regularity of this journey over many decades, the horror of it is palpable. But it effaces a key part of the triangular trade: how did these future slaves reach the shores of West Africa? Telling the story of the Europeans and Africans who physically kidnapped and transported their human brothers and sisters to a slave port might have complicated the story, but leaving it out is misleading.
There are other gaps. I noticed relatively little in the museum relating to Spain and Portugal’s much longer role in the European slave trade, or British involvement in the South and Central American slave trade. The celebration of slave descendants in the third gallery seemed (again) United States-heavy. I would have appreciated larger displays about enslaved Africans who survived and recorded their experiences, like Olaudah Equiano.
Then there’s the noise: it’s difficult to slow down, read thoughtfully, and look carefully when a cacophony of video and audio loops fills yours senses. It also limits meaningful dialogue between museum visitors. To be fair, the museum’s fine website fills many of these gaps. But it’s not the same as a museum experience. I hope a planned expansion of the museum will tell a fuller, more complex story but also include more spaces for quiet reflection.
Indeed, my greatest insights—and they were great—came from parts of the museum that require patience or reflection in order to connect the past with our present. An exhibition on street names and neighborhoods notes that Penny Lane commemorates Liverpool merchant James Penny, who made his wealth through the slave trade. I may never hear the Beatles’ song in quite the same way again. A small display follows Thomas Leyland, the Liverpool banker who built his fortune on slave ships, and whose bank capital was eventually absorbed into HSBC. A well-placed window looks down on dry docks where slave ships were serviced. On a gloomy January day, one can almost imagine those engines of human misery being furnished below. One of the most troubling displays is one floor down, in the Maritime Museum: it describes the ways that British merchants supported the pro-slavery South in the 1860s American Civil War, long after slavery was abolished in the British Empire. Britons could not legally buy and sell humans, but they continued to make garments from the cotton grown by enslaved Africans—a point which links poignantly to the thousands of Uzbek children picking cotton for us.
The International Slavery Museum is a profoundly important institution, and I could have easily spent another day exploring the exhibits. While it’s still finding its way, we’re better off for its existence. This is a communal space wrestling with some of the most difficult questions of the past but also with the past’s implications for the present. The museum doesn’t simply ask us to reflect on where the wealth came from that built the great monuments of past centuries; it also makes us consider what human suffering and forced migrations today produce the clothes we wear and the petrol that runs our cars. In a sense, the museum plays a similar if more subtle role as the abolitionists two centuries ago who forced their neighbors to think about the human blood that brought bowls of sugar to their tea tables.