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The International Slavery Museum aimed ‘to promote the
understanding of transatlantic slavery and its enduring impact.’ 1When
considering the importance of the museums it is important to understand that
the museum presents some fundamental key issues. This focuses on the
presentation of both native Africans and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and this
essay will focus on examining each of these aspects. The museum itself aimed to
provide the audience with an insight into ‘the understanding of transatlantic
slavery and its enduring impact’2.It
focused on providing the audience with an experience for the lives of the
‘enslaved’ and the tough experiences they had faced. The museum is divided into
themes in which are separated into: Life in West Africa, Enslavement and the
Middle Passage and finally Legacy. The museum allow a greater understanding
into the greater depth of the stories and experiences of the ‘enslaved’.
Arguably, there are some limitations of the museum an example being the idea of
‘commemoration not celebration’, so the museum focuses on commemorating the
past events in particular the lives of the native Africans as well as the
presentation of the transatlantic slave trade throughout the museum.
Furthermore, the museum allows the audience to gain an experience in
understanding the message in which the museum was trying to convey for each of
the key issues.

The presentation of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade within the
museum was a key issue when examining the display on ‘Enslavement and The
Middle Passage’. This particular exhibition used the technique of the surroundings
to shed a light particularly on the experiences of the enslaved especially on
their voyage trips. The museum focused both on colour and sound to reflect the
experiences of the enslaved and the dark colours within the displays created a
tone that which allowed the audience to gain a first-hand experience. The
colour and sound created a combination as the mood of the colours reflected the
screaming and pain of the enslaved during the voyages to the Americas. Walvin
(2013) argues that many of the enslaved were ‘viewed merely as victims, with
little role or agency in the entire story of enslavement and freedom’3.
It can be argued that the exhibition to some extent creates the enslaved as
‘victims’ with the sound reflecting the pain as the screaming suggests a lack
of freedom. The harsh conditions as well as the unsanitary surrounding often
led to the ‘death of many millions’. 4
Furthermore, it was also evidently clear that ‘Liverpool came to dominate the
British Slave Trade’ 5and
the exhibition reflected much on the role of Transatlantic Slave Trade within
Britain during the 18th century. The museum presented the journey of
many of the enslaved from Africa to the America as one which was regarded to be
a negative experience and the struggles in which many had faced. The
presentation of Olaudah Equiano (a former slave) within the museum gave an
insight into the first-hand account and experience on life on the ships.
Equiano (1789) states ‘This wretched situation was again aggravated by the
galling of the chains, now become insupportable…’ 6his
account allows an insight into the first-hand experience of a former slave who
had experienced the hardship that had come with the trade ships.

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When examining the International Slavery Museum and important
factor to consider is the way in which Trans-Atlantic Slavery was presented
within the museum. It can be regarded as an exhibition which heightens the
treatment of the enslaved with the objects that are included within the
gallery. The ‘Shackles’ are a symbolic object as it presents the enslaved as
having no ‘freedom’ (see in Appendix 1). The shackles themselves were ‘rustic’
looking and looked rotten many of the enslaved were chained with one on their
hand and the other on their feet this was because there was a fear of the
enslaved escaping and so the shackles signified that the enslaved were
‘trapped’. The exhibition on ‘Enslavement and the Middle Passage’ included many
shackles throughout there was one figure in particular of an ‘Enslaved African breaking
free of his chains7’
(see in Appendix 2). The judgment which can be formed from this figure is that this
is often seen to be rather symbolic. The ‘shackles’ were presented throughout
the museum this could instigate that the enslaved were not infact treated in a
fair manner and the Africans were seen to be of an inferior status. Almost, as
though the shackles had removed their identity and more importantly their
freedom and the museum did well in presenting this within the displays. Another
interpretation is argued by Walvin (2013) states ‘Restraining the growing ranks
of Africans by manacles and chains was the only way in which small bands of
sailors could hope to maintain any semblance of control’8
it suggests that in order for the ships to be running Africans needed to be
‘chained’ for many it created the atmosphere of a prison and within the museum
the videos explicitly show the Africans in pain as they try to break free from
the violence similar to the figure that had been shown. 

The display on ‘Life in West Africa’ within the International
Slavery Museum presents the cultural life of the Africans before slavery. The
museum presents the contrast of the two galleries with a difference in colour.
The ‘Life in West Africa’ display includes colourful colours which creates an
uplifting atmosphere and it unveils the ‘African cultural achievements before
the arrival of Europeans and the start of the transatlantic slave trade.’9
The Museum allows the recognition of the lives of Africans before slavery and
how their lives were lived so freely. This gallery further emphasised the power
and wealth of the West Africans and they also were popular with trade as there
was ‘strong trade bonds between Europeans and Africans’ 10(Emmer
2014;2009). This was ironic as not long after the Europeans began to kidnap the
Africans and their culture as well as identity was proven to have been left
behing. Many of the Europeans saw the Africans as uncivilised’, however the Igbo
domestic architecture  proves that they
were infact ‘sophisticated’. The museum presents the Igbo architecture (see in
appendix 3) as portraying the ‘wealth’ of the Africans as well as reflecting the
views that during the early modern period the Africans were living in a free
society and the museum allows the understanding of a family unit of a titled
Igbo man. The display allows the audience into a greater understanding of the
lives of West Africans before slavery and the impact in which many of the
‘enslaved’ face and how their lives changed from the West African society to
the ‘plantations’ in Americas.  

The Africa exhibition was split into two with the lives
before slavery and after the museum infact distinguished the two. The
‘plantation’ display had focused on portraying the audience with a dark
atmosphere and this helped with gaining an insight into the struggles in which
many had faced. For many Africans the ‘Plantation owners wanted labour and justified
the barbarity of their treatment by using biblical arguments that Africans were
less than human’ 11as
this was reflected through the series of images which presented the condition
of the enslaved. Blassingame (1979) argues that many were ‘Captured and brought
to America under the most painful and bewildering conditions…’12
this suggests that many of the Africans were kidnapped and sent to Americas to
work on ‘the plantations’ and many faced hardship in comparison to their lives in
West Africa. As, they went from living a free life to becoming ‘enslaved’ and
their freedom had been removed from them. The image of the Africans working on
plantations (see in appendix 4) allows the audience of the museum to understand
the power of their masters and as Olaudah Equiano quoted ‘the slaves to be
branded with the initial letters of their masters name; and a load of heavy iron
hooks hung about their necks’ this is infact reflected throughout the
exhibition. The image presents the master with ultimate control as the gesture
of his hand could be understood to be an ‘order’ and the overall message in
which the museum conveys is the change the Africans had faced and ironically
the exhibition reflects the reading in which I have read about the lives of the
enslaved. The museum has used the technique of colour to create a
differentiation with the ‘positive’ life they once lived to now working on
plantations with the dark atmosphere that creates negative connations. During
this period the ‘British American colonies demanded African slaves, the role of
the African companies changed to supply them’13
many of the Africans were sent to the Americas to work on either plantation or
factories and they were used as a source of labour. For many there is a loss of
identity and culture are left behind as in the Americas they are identified
with another name and overtime their identity is completely removed.

To conclude, the International Slavery Museum presented the
Native Americans as well as Trans-Atlantic slave trade as a key issue within
the museum. The exhibitions of the museum allow a differentiation when understanding
the lives of the African before and after slavery as well as the significant changes
in which they had faced. The museum uses the technique of colour throughout to
enhance the experiences as well as creating an atmosphere within the museum itself.
The Trans-Atlantic slave trade display further emphasises the lives of the ‘enslaved’
with the objects that signify the each sector of their lives from trade to the
shackles. The International Slavery Museum effectively uses sound and
interactive videos to create an understanding for the first-hand accounts of
the ‘enslaved’ as well as creating an atmosphere that helps the audience to
gain a deeper understanding into the experiences. The displays also signify
important themes one of which is identity and the museum allows you to experience
the culture and identity of the enslaved to have been removed and how their
lives had transformed since moving to the Americas. For many this was infact a period
of struggle and many were not infact able to adjust to this lifestyle.

 

1 International Slavery Museum. (2017). About the
International Slavery Museum. Retrieved from
http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/about/index.aspx.

2 International Slavery Museum. (2017). About the
International Slavery Museum. Retrieved from
http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/about/index.aspx.

3
Walvin, J. (2013). Crossings:
Africa, the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade. London: Reaktion Books.
Pg .12

4
Understanding Slavery. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.understandingslavery.com/

5 Richardson, D., Schwarz, S., & Tibbles, A.
(2007). Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery. GB: Liverpool
University Press.Pg.4

6 International Slavery Museum. (2017). Olaudah
Equiano – life on board. Retrieved from
http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/middle_passage/olaudah_equiano.aspx.

7 International Slavery Museum. (2017). Figure
of an enslaved African breaking free of his chains. Retrieved from
http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/visit/floor-plan/middle-passage/breaking-free.aspx.

8 Walvin, J. (2013). Crossings: Africa, the
Americas and the Atlantic slave trade. London: Reaktion Books. Pg .91

9 International Slavery Museum. (2017). Life in
West Africa. Retrieved from
http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/visit/floor-plan/africa/index.aspx.

10Emmer, P. C. (2014;2009). Migration, trade, and
slavery in an expanding world: Essays in honor of pieter emmer (1st ed.).
Boston:BRILL.Pg.150

11 International Slavery Museum. (2017). Life in
plantations. Retrieved from
http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/ism/slavery/americas/plantation_life.aspx.

12 Blassingame, J. (1979). Enslavement, Acculturation and
African Survials. In J. Blassingame (Ed), The slave community: plantation
life in the antebellum South. Pg.7

13 The National Archives. Britain and the Slave Trade.
Retrieved from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/pdf/britain-and-the-trade.pdf.

 

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