Art Fund Prize 2008: The International Slavery Museum

By Narelle Doe | 26 February 2008
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A photograph of an interior of a museum with a wall of photographs of African faces.

Black achievers wall at International Slavery Museum. Courtesy Redman Design/International Slavery Museum

VOTE! The judges have already started their deliberations of the ten longlisted museums for The Art Fund Prize 2008, but who do you think should win the coveted prize? Don't forget to cast your vote in the 24 Hour Museum People's Vote

24 Hour Museum continues its alphabetical round-up of the museums on this year’s longlist by looking at the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool.

The £100,000 Art Fund Prize is awarded to the museum or gallery whose project demonstrates the most originality, imagination and excellence, and the International Slavery Museum is bidding for first prize with its hard-hitting and thought provoking examination of slavery.

This new museum, which opened August 23 2007, uses the largely hidden story of the transatlantic slave trade to explore issues such as freedom, identity, human rights, racism and cultural change. This date is significant being the annual Slavery Remembrance Day and the bicentenary year of the abolition of the British slave trade.

shows a close up of a Klu Klux Klan hood

Klu Klux Klan costume made in the 1950s © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum

Located in Liverpool's Albert Dock, the museum is only yards away from the dry docks where 18th century slave trading ships were repaired and fitted out.

Visitors are met at the entrance to the Museum with the Freedom and Enslavement Wall. Television screens set into the wall show interviews with a range of people discussing their ideas of freedom and enslavement, from community historians to politicians, schoolchildren, and even people who have themselves been enslaved. Together they provide a powerful introduction to the themes of the museum.

Communications manager Joanna Rowlands described how the response to the museum has been quite overwhelming. Since it opened, more than 150,000 people have been through the doors and the staff there have organised learning sessions for over 12,000 school children and members of the public.

“While we always hoped it would be popular we didn’t realise quite how significant the place would be to people from all over the world,” she said.

shows a recreation of an African village compound

A life-size recreation of a Nigerian Igbo compound © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum

Highlighting the international importance of slavery, both in a historic and contemporary context, and working in partnership with other museums with a focus on freedom and enslavement, the museum provides opportunities for greater awareness and understanding of the legacy of slavery today.

Divided into three main galleries, the museum focuses on the themes of Life in West Africa, Enslavement and the Middle Passage, and Legacies of slavery. Life in West Africa looks at the continent and the rich culture of its people with displayed objects including musical instruments, masks and sculpted figures. There is also a recreation of a traditional Igbo family compound to explore.

Enslavement and the Middle Passage focuses on how enslaved Africans were taken to the Americas to work on plantations and the oppression they were subjected to there. A walk-in audiovisual display about the Middle Passage recreates some of the brutality and severe trauma they suffered on their journey.

The Middle Passage was the second leg of the triangular slave trade route. It involved an eight to ten week journey across the Atlantic in cramped and basic conditions. Treated like animals, many Africans died of disease or took their own lives. Those who survived were treated no better on their arrival in the Americas.

shows a model of a plantation on the caribbean island of St Kitts

Model of a Caribbean plantation where archaeolgists are examining the actuality of the horror of slavery © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum

Legacies of Slavery details the continuing fight for equality and freedom, and the racism and discrimination faced by the black population even after the abolition of the slave trade. Examining the contemporary impact of transatlantic slavery, this gallery looks at how the spirit of the Africans survived and shaped the cultures of America and Europe.

At the Music Desk you can listen to more than 300 songs from many different genres that are influenced by African music, such as jazz, the blues and Mersey Beat music from Liverpool.

Four centuries of revolts and revolution are examined on the Fight for Freedom and Equality wall. The story is brought up to date with a film showing prominent 20th century black leaders and movements, such as Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights movement and the rise of the Black Panther Party.

But will these hard-hitting and carefully thought out galleries sway the judges? Among the nine other exhibitions and projects on the longlist, The International Slavery Museum is competing with Breaking the Chains at The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol, which also examines the theme of slavery.

Following judges’ visits, four museums and galleries will be shortlisted and announced in early April. The winner will be announced on Thursday May 22 at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London during Museum and Galleries Month 2008.

Before then we would like to know what you think in our People's Vote. Do you think the International Slavery Museum should win the 2008 Art Fund Prize? Vote for this museum or any others on the longlist here

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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