Thirty years since Toxteth and the national and local media have had a good stab at covering the 1981 riots and aftermath.
But we’ve not heard a lot about in Liverpool. This is a shame because the results of the Toxteth riots continued to ripple outward across Liverpool for decades afterwards – and much talk of regeneration and community engagement has been bandied abut since.
Pretty much 30 years on exactly the garden festival site – one of Michael Heseltine’s ideas to rejuventate depressed areas – will be partially reopened and there’s still a battle raging between those who want to bulldoze rows of Victorian terraces around Liverpool, and Toxteth, and those who don’t.
Among Liverpool’s museums, galleries and theatres the only acknowledgement of the Toxteth riots – or uprising if you prefer – that we discovered is in the International Slavery Museum. This seemed to be stretching the remit somewhat. It’s obviously better suited to the Museum of Liverpool, but clearly a decision was made not to feature it at the new museum. A sensible choice? We’re not so sure.
The Toxteth 1981 exhibition consists of a few fascinating photos with minimal curation – and very little else. Rather like the Beyond the Boundary cricket and empire exhibition last year, it feels like a woefully undercooked gesture towards covering the subject matter.
The exhibition is curated with Merseyside Black History Month Group (MBHMG) and Writing on the Wall (WoW), but there’s precious little to suggest anything but the most basic involvement. There are a few dozen rare pictures in the exhibition, none of which are familiar and have apparently been sourced from within the community.
Laudable stuff, but if you’re going out into the community then why not speak to residents? Why not make a record of their memories? Why not video them talking about what they remember on those heady nights? Why not make an interactive map of the flashpoints? Interviews with modern police chiefs on Merseyside? Then and now images of Princes Avenue and Parliament Street? Why not profile Toxteth’s racial heritage and background, perhaps drawing a line to the black community’s arrival in Liverpool and their treatment in the city in the years that led to 1981?
Any of those things would have been relevant, interesting, important – fleshing out images that, devoid of context, may leave those unfamiliar with the events of 1981 nonplussed by their power.
And powerful they are. They show nothing less than Toxteth as an inner-city warzone; burned-out cars and ad hoc barricades and a barely concealed resentment towards the police.
These images show L8 against the world. Tight-knit, oppressed, angry. A community ready to explode. Despite their familiarity, those places feel alien. A place of different clothes, cars, conflicts.
All of which makes Toxteth 1981 even more of a missed opportunity. Many of the initiatives suggested above are present on a website curated by MBHMG and WoW – and there are books and DVDs; so why not present some of them at the museum alongside the photographs?
It makes for a strangely underwhelming exhibition – and one that’s sticking around for a full year – that doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. In a vacuum those images may be striking, provocative and intriguing, but the lack of context does them a disservice and fails to do justice to a pivotal moment in the city’s history.
Toxteth 1981, until 1 July 2012
International Slavery Museum
Until July 2012