The Middle Passage Gallery, International Slavery Museum © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum
24 Hour Museum Editor Jon Pratty meets Dr Richard Benjamin, Head of the International Slavery Museum as the new museum is revealed prior to opening on August 23 2007.
National Museums Liverpool (NML) opens the International Slavery Museum on Slavery Remembrance Day, August 23 2007, with an ambitious mission to use the museum to explore not just the abolition of slavery but also wider issues around racism through history.
It's a bold move and as you move through the three purpose-built areas in the museum, which is on the top floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the scale of the challenge becomes clear.
The new museum replaces the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, which opened in 1994. The new museum goes further, according to Richard Benjamin, Director of the International Slavery Museum.
"This new museum is very much a statement, it's more contemporary, more challenging, something living and breathing, rather than something historically-based."
August 23 was chosen by UNESCO as International Slavery Day to commemorate the uprising by enslaved Africans on the island of St Domingo in 1791. The uprising took place in what is now modern Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The date was chosen as a reminder that enslaved Africans were the main agents of their own liberation.
A life-size recreation of a Nigerian Igbo compound © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum
The first exhibition area takes you to Africa, to get a feel for the culture and experience that many people, men, women and children, were forcibly removed from.
Visitors can see the domestic compound of a tribal elder from the Nigerian Igbo people. It's not intended to be totally authentic, rather to be an interpretation. It was built by a Liverpool artist working with a London-based Nigerian artist.
Secondly the Middle Passage Gallery is where the full horror of the slavery experience can be seen, in the form of dramatisations vividly realised on giant screens, supported by powerful objects from the NML collections that reinforce the experience.
Chains, manacles and sinister contraptions that lock around the head of the enslaved human can be seen, as well as model slave ships, and contemporary paintings of Liverpool in the pomp of its heyday as one of the busiest slaving ports in the world. This part of the museum illustrates the mechanisms and commerce of this evil practice in vivid ways.
Model of a Caribbean plantation where archaeolgists are examining the actuality of the horror of slavery © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum
With the University of Southampton, National Museums Liverpool are conducting new archaeological investigations into plantation sites. Led by Dr Rob Philpott from the museum, the work has so far been concerned with fieldwork, but digging will begin soon. A model of a plantation is on show based on the team's research on St Kitts, in the Caribbean.
"This is the physical context of slavery," said Dr Philpott. "It's important that we don't try to romanticise the subject. I was, quite frankly, disgusted that people could do this to each other."
Lastly there's a fascinating section of the museum where the reality of slavery and the continuing experience of modern cultures and racism are entwined and explored through music, exhibits and more interactives and films.
Klu Klux Klan costume made in the 1950s © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum
According to Richard Benjamin, one of the most chilling items on display came to the museum quite by chance. "A gentleman contacted me asking if we would be interested in this Klu Klux Klan outfit. It had belonged to a member of his family. A member of the museum staff flew over to the States to examine and authenticate it. Ironically, it's not from the south, it's from the northern states. It's quite shabby, quite chilling, probably home-made."
"This is one of our most challenging sections in the museum," said Richard Benjamin as he toured the exhibition. There's a police riot helmet of the sort used during the Toxteth riots. Multimedia presentations show film of the Black Panthers in the US and riots in the UK, but also on display there's a wall dedicated to 76 Black Achievers, past and present.
"We're not a museum of abolitionism, we're a museum about slavery, about the fight for freedom and equality and we're a living, breathing museum so we'll change the faces on display."
There's a wall dedicated to black achievers, past and present. © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum
"We're a living and breathing museum and we think one of our roles will be to make good links internationally," Richard Benjamin explained. "It's all about making new links, new collaborative projects."
Benjamin is keen to take a touring exhibition around African and Caribbean museums. "I like the idea of having a National Museum Liverpool and International Slavery Museum presence around the world. People shouldn't necessarily have to travel all the way to Liverpool to see us."
Part of a multimedia presentation at the museum about the death of Anthony Walker and it's repercussions on Merseyside. © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum
Integrated into the museum is the Anthony Walker Education Centre, dedicated to the Merseyside teenager murdered in 2005. The centre will provide a space for education work about the legacy of racial intolerance left behind by the transatlantic slave trade.
Artist André Eugène was one of the team that created the Freedom Sculpture © Jon Pratty / 24Hour Museum
Also included in the museum is a thought-provoking sculpture made by a group of four young Haitian artists. The Freedom Sculpture was commissioned by Christian Aid and NML, and highlights the continuing struggle for freedom and human rights. Haiti was the first independent black republic, set up in 1084, but it remains one of the world's poorest countries.
The Freedom Sculpture was made from recycled objects like car parts found in the streets and slums of the Haiti capital, Port-au-Prince. The four artists, led by Mario Benjamin, worked with other youths, part of a youth project run by Christian aid partner organisation APROSIFA.
The museum was awarded £1.65m by the Heritage Lottery Fund in November 2005. Additional funds come from the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) and the North West Regional Development Agency.
A second phase of the museum, a Research and Resource Centre is planned to open in 2010. Here visitors will be able to explore issues discovered in the museum, using an archive, community zone, reference library, internet access and a learning suite.