Liverpool’s mea culpa in response to the city’s prominent role in the slave trade – still evident today in road names and the curious melting pot of cultures – the International Slavery Museum is, as the name suggests, a reflection on the history of the slave trade around the world.
Housed, fittingly, in the same building as Liverpool’s Maritime Museum at the Albert Dock, the Slavery Museum claims to be the only such museum to examine both historical and contemporary slavery; opening in 2007 and racking up a million visitors within three years.
As part of the vast National Museums Liverpool group, the Slavery Museum looks back at the role of the slave trade in building the prosperity of the West, with three main ongoing facets that examine the history of slavery, modern ramifications and related issues:
Life in West Africa examines with reference to transatlantic slavery; Enslavement and the Middle Passage – the experience of African slaves on the voyage across the Atlantic and life on American plantations; and Legacies of Slavery – the contemporary impact of transatlantic slavery and the global African diaspora.
But the museum also detours into less obvious directions with regular new exhibitions that broaden the scope. Past exhibitions have taken in the role of colonialism in cricket, the human cost of the modern cotton trade and the 1981 Liverpool riots.
Also make sure you see the Freedom! sculpture, a pot-pourri of recycled objects found in Haitian slums. It’s either thought-provoking or a total mess, depending on your point of view.
It’s a good example of how difficult it is to do the subject – potentially wide-ranging, controversial and rather dull – justice and bring it to life.
While it’s part of the same building that houses the Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum isn’t just an addendum – or token hand-waving.
Certainly not every aspect works brilliantly, and the focus of some exhibitions feels very broad and sometimes unfocussed, but there’s fascinating, sobering and often troubling exhibits and information here that feel vital in terms of Liverpool’s make-up and complex relationship with race, empire and the sea.
The International Slavery Museum is open daily between 10am-5pm and is free to visit.