Against human dignity: the development of the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum

Anthony Tibbles, 1996

From 'Proceedings, IXth International Congress of Maritime Museums', edited Adrian Jarvis, Roger Knight and Michael Stammers, 1996.

The decision to create a Transatlantic Slavery gallery in Liverpool

The history of Transatlantic Slavery is intimately bound up with the history of Liverpool, particularly in the 18th century. David Richardson has written

“it is clear that the traffic in enslaved Africans was the corner-stone of Liverpool overseas trade from about 1730 to 1807... the African and related trades may have occupied at least a third and possibly up to a half of Liverpool shipping tonnage before 1807.” [1]

Even after abolition of the trade, Liverpool merchants continued to trade along two of the sides of the triangle - to West Africa primarily for palm oil, and to North America and the Caribbean, mainly for cotton, sugar and tobacco produced by slave labour.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum had covered the history of the port of Liverpool until 1857 in one of its first galleries opened in 1987. The slave trade was placed in the context of the overall trade of the port and because of this its significance was underplayed. We had also hurried the brief and were unaware of recent research. On reflection our treatment was woefully inadequate and not surprisingly we were criticised for it - not least in the report by Lord Gifford which looked at race relations in the city [2]. By 1989-90 we were looking at ways of improving this gallery and in particular of fully recognising the importance of Liverpool’s role in the slave trade.

It was at this point that the Peter Moores Foundation approached us with the suggestion of creating a separate display about the slave trade. You may think that this is an unlikely source for such an idea. The Peter Moores Foundation is a private charity funded by Peter Moores, until recently a major shareholder in the family’s football pools and retail empire. The proposal to develop some form of display about the slave trade came directly from Peter Moores and I can do no better than quote his own words

“During forty years of work and travel in Europe and America, it became increasingly clear to me that slavery was a taboo subject, both to white and to black people. Forty years ago, most Europeans had managed to suppress any acknowledgement of their connection with the slave trade. In the United States, where it was impossible to ignore the results of the slave trade, there was segregation, later bussing and recently something like integration, but never any mention of how black people came to be in America in the first place. We can come to terms with our past only by accepting it, and in order to be able to accept it we need knowledge of what actually happened. We need to make sense of our history.

It seemed to me that the taboo should be exorcised, and black friends agreed with me.” [3]

After several months of discussion on how we could do it, where we could do it, how much it would cost etc, we came to an agreement whereby the Foundation would make available nearly £550,000 for the development of a 400 square metre gallery devoted to the transatlantic slave trade in the basement of the Merseyside Maritime Museum. The scheme was publicly announced in December 1991 and the development process began.

Advisory committee and guest curators

How did we organise it? Our first task was to establish an advisory committee under the chairmanship of the late Lord Pitt. A former Chairman of the Greater London Council, the British Medical Association and a doyen of the campaign against racial discrimination, he was also a consummate politician - a skill which came to our aid on more than one occasion. As well as representatives of National Museums Liverpool (known as NMGM at the time) and Peter Moores Foundation, we had people from the Black community in this country, including Liverpool, and from abroad. The role of the committee was to advise and guide the project team and to act as a means of communication. They gave valuable advice ranging from organisational issues, such as consultation, procedures for appointments, to the educational aspects and also the overall approach and matters such as the use of illustrative material.

On the academic front we began by hosting a two day seminar at the museum in January 1992. We invited scholars who had research and written about the transatlantic slave trade, about slavery and about related issues, including people working in this country, and from abroad, particularly the United States and Canada. We examined the themes we thought we ought to cover in a series of sessions and asked for advice. It was an invaluable session, though one participant concluded that it was impractical and impolitic to develop such a gallery at the Merseyside Maritime Museum! Others were more optimistic. As a result of the seminar we appointed a group of six people - which later grew to eleven - to help us in the role of guest curators - principally to advise on the story line and the text.

Whilst it was important to have academic and official support, it was also clear from the beginning that our consultations on this gallery had to be much wider - particularly with the Black community and especially with people in Liverpool. We had a difficult public launch for the project and a difficult first meeting with people from the community, which coincided with the first guest curators meeting. The discussions brought out a lot of concerns and some hostility. Why was National Museums Liverpool doing this? What were Peter Moores' motives? What were local Black people going to get out of the project in terms of work or jobs? Was National Museums Liverpool going to make a profit out of this? There was criticism of the composition of the advisory committee and the guest curators’ group. There were also people with entirely different agendas. In general there was suspicion of an institution which was seen to have a poor record of addressing Black issues and Black concerns suddenly undertaking a project so central to the history of Black people.

We were aware of the problems which other institutions had experienced and with the help of the guest curators and the advisory committee began to address some of these concerns. We adopted a mission statement. We took steps to explain our role and the way we saw the gallery developing and crucially the role others could play in that process. We made further appointments to the advisory committee and guest curators’ group - specifically to take account of concerns that not enough women were involved and not enough Africans. Over a period we shared our ideas on the brief and discussed methods of approach and interpretation. We sought advice on what the gallery should be called. We sought advice from individuals, held further meetings, organised a focus group and asked our own visitors about the project. We also issued a couple of newsletters. We did not resolve all the problems and all the concerns but we did listen to what people had to say. It was a challenging experience and the degree of discussion and consultation with individuals and groups outside National Museums Liverpool was quite unlike anything else that we had previously undertaken.

Museum staff involved in the project

On the museum side I acted as the project leader. We also appointed a project curator, Alison Taubman. In the early stages much of her work was linked to making contacts with people whether in museums or in black community groups to get as much information and feedback as possible. A key part of her role was locating objects and illustrative material, and this then extended to organising loans, photography, conservation requirements etc. We had the support of an in-house project group which included other curatorial colleagues, design, education and public relations. The composition of this group varied and various ad hoc and sub groups were also necessary to deal with particular aspects eg the opening. The design of the gallery was undertaken by Ivor Heal Design, a design consultancy with wide museum experience.

Another key appointment was that of Garry Morris as the outreach worker for the gallery. His role was to go out into the community, and in particular the Black community, to stimulate interest in the gallery and to develop activities and programmes that would extend the traditional role of the museum. He began work in November 1993, a year before the opening, and built on the contacts made by the curatorial team. He organised events in the museum and outside such as a workshop on women in slavery and a poetry reading on South Africa’s National Day. He also organised a major performance on the day before the official opening which including a procession and memorial event for all those for suffered as a result of the slave trade.

Remembering the human stories

The story line was obviously the crucial element and immediately begs the question - what is the approach? Do we see this from a European point of view or an African one? A white or a Black? Is African the same as Black? White European? Unfortunately in a case like this, there is no easy middle way, no obvious compromise. At our first guest curators’ meeting we formulated a mission statement:

“The aim of the gallery is to increase public understanding of the experience of Black people in Britain and the modern world through an examination of the Atlantic slave trade and the African diaspora.”

One thing that was very clear was the different perceptions of the slave trade and what it means to different people. There is a perceptive comment on this matter by Stephen Small, a member of both the advisory committee and the guest curators’ group -

"To most white people, slavery and colonialism are just part of a distant memory of nothing in particular. For whites, slavery did not last particularly long, its benefits accrued only to a tiny proportion of white people and the evils of slavery are overshadowed by the role played by British abolitionists. In any case, the rise of Western nations, Britain, and the United States in particular, as the industrial supremos of the world, is explicable to them simply in terms of English innate genius. Poverty and penury in Africa, and racial inequality in the West, is explained in terms of black inability, incompetence or laziness.

To black people, though, slavery and colonialism reiterate themselves in our everyday lives, and evoke poignant and immediate memories of suffering, brutalisation and terror. For black people, Western nations achieved their industrial growth and economic prosperity on the backs of slaves, abolished slavery primarily for economic reasons, have discriminated against black people ever since, and are unrepentant about any of it. African under-development and racial inequality in the West is understood primarily in terms of racism and racist hostility of whites.” [4]

One of the dangers of the European view is that it is very easy to get obsessed by the mechanics of the trade - the ships, the methods of trading, the numbers, the economics - and thus dehumanise it all. This was one of the principal and sustained criticisms of the initial working title of the gallery - the Atlantic Slave Trade Gallery - and why we agreed to change it. The Afrocentric perspective reminded us very forcible that this is a story above all about people. We could have begun the display in Liverpool with fitting out a slave ship and followed the triangular route; instead after a brief introduction explaining what the slave trade was and how it came about, the gallery goes straight to Africa and only later picks up on the European involvement - the traders and their ships. This means the visitor is almost immediately plunged into Africa and re-reinforces the point that the slave trade was about Africans. We have tried to sustain this throughout the gallery and wherever possible make use of personal witness, whether by illustrations, audio or by an interpretative tool of 'inventing' four Africans to introduce at key points throughout the gallery.

Decisions about the content of the gallery

As a gallery in a museum we were very keen that it should be rich in objects and not rely only on illustrations, reconstructions and other interpretative devices - important though those are. So what objects do you use to tell the story of the transatlantic slave trade? Everyone immediately thinks of chains and shackles, the instruments of torture, punishment and restraint, but these are hardly sufficient to provide a full picture. We needed to adopt a more lateral approach to find the items which provided the context and which helped flesh out the story.

This can be illustrated in the first section of the gallery. One of the main intentions was to get across the point that Africa should not be portrayed only as a place where Europeans got 'slaves'. To remind visitors that Africa - and we are talking particularly of West Africa and West Central Africa - had a diversity of states, societies and cultures. That other things went on and that there were influences other than European. There was, therefore, an opportunity to use a range of objects from African cultures to make this point and we are fortunate within National Museums Liverpool that the Liverpool Museum (the former name for World Museum) has substantial African collections. You will, therefore, find a small but crucial group of artefacts which are intended to represent the strength of these cultures.

We were also anxious that we did not use too many European images of Africans but it is not easy to find African material. One of the few examples of where Africans do depict themselves and even more rarely where they depict Europeans are the famous - or perhaps I should say infamous - Benin Bronzes. These date from the 16th and 17th centuries and are thus exceptionally valuable evidence. Here we not only have depictions of Bini soldiers but also of the Portuguese, bearing manillas. Another emotive plaque shown a European soldier armed with a sword and more importantly a gun. These are invaluable images and a necessary counter-balance to the European visual record.

The inclusion of these plaques is not without its problems. We all know that they were looted in a punitive raid on Benin by the British Navy in 1897. The African Reparations Movement has argued that this is a clear case for restitution of cultural property. In the legal context this is obviously a matter for the British Museum but the ethical case is wider. We have taken the view that whilst these plaques are in this country it is better that they should be on display to the public and we feel that it is particular appropriate that they should feature in this context and fulfil the purpose that I have described.

There can, of course, be dangers with visual evidence. For instance, almost all three dimensional material connected with abolition relates to the European humanitarian and moral campaigns to abolish the slaver trade and slavery. Although historians recognise the contribution of these campaigns, they also draw attention to other factors. The enslaved themselves played a significant part, through various forms of resistance - revolts on board ship, the large scale uprisings in the Americas, the passive resistance of go slows. We have tried to reflect this not only in the text but in the visual impact of the display.

The Middle Passage

The most demanding part of the gallery was how to deal with the Middle Passage. It was a subject we discussed in outline at consultative meetings and in more depth with a focus group. Everyone recognised the centrality of the Middle Passage - it was the one common experience of all Africans who were enslaved and was of profound psychological significance. Views varied. Some wanted us to construct an emotive but authentic hold to walk through with manacled bodies covered in excrement, groans, smells - the full works. At the other end of the spectrum, some advocated an accurate illustrative approach or a model.

After a lot of discussion we agreed certain parameters - a walk-thorough experience was essential, visitors needed to experience the dislocation, but we did not want something that frightened people (particularly children) and we did not want to sensationalise.

The solution we adopted was to recreate part of the hold of a slave ship that visitors walk thorough. It is authentic in that it is based on the dimensions of a known Liverpool slaver - the Brooks - give or take a few inches in height. It is dark. There are some atmospheric noises but the principal sound is alternate readings from the log of John Newton, being extracts from his daily entries on voyages made between 1752 and 1754, and readings from the memoirs of Equiano, who made his enforced voyage at about the same time. The matter of fact entries by Newton contrast dramatically with the emotional response of Equiano. We also realised that movement was important and we project images representing shackled human beings, but slightly dislocated, moving in the constricted space. We wanted visitors to use their imaginations and hoped to provide them with enough information and experience to do so.

I have to be honest and say that this solution is not a 100% success. But I hasten to add that I don’t think any solution would be perfect. How could it be? Some people do find it a moving an emotional experience; for others the bareness of the interpretation leaves them unmoved. I suspect that visitors’ responses depend on what they bring with them. For some people - particularly Black people who carry with them the collective memory of generations - it has been very emotional: Maya Angelou, who opened the gallery, would not go in there alone. Others, again including Black people, think it is unemotional and have used words like “sanitised.” The limited research we have done does not suggest it is a major failure and I hesitate to tamper when there is no clear direction to go.

There are, of course, other visual stimuli - the dioramas, the models, the interactive elements and videos. We are also growing live sugar cane in the gallery - a first in this sort of situation as far as I am aware. Sound is also important - we have traditional music in the African section, work songs in the sugar cane display and I have mentioned the readings in the ship. At a number of places in the gallery visitors can also pick up soundstiks and hear audio extracts. These allow a voice from the past to speak, as it were, directly to the visitor - Equiano talking about life in Africa; an African chief 'ordering' his goods from Liverpool; Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth talking about their experiences of slavery. In these cases we have used authentic extracts and sought to have them read by actors of approximately the right age and with the right accent. All at union rates!!

The importance of the text in the gallery

I feel I should say a few words about the written word - the text [5]. How do you decide what the text says? In our case this was a long and complex business, involving the guest curators, copywriters and ourselves. There was the physical challenge of reducing a complex and difficult story into just a few thousands words but there was also considerations of language, approach and attitude. We were well aware, for instance, of the problems that the Royal Ontario Museum in Ottawa had experienced with one of their exhibitions when people had demonstrated outside the museum [6].

The final text ran to some 4,500 words and was the result of about 17 separate stages or drafts. I slightly revised and reordered this text to produce a cheap (50p) gallery guide that visitors could take home with them.

What were the problems? To take a simple example from the introductory panel. The initial text produced read:

“Over more than four centuries millions of Africans were shipped westwards across the Atlantic in conditions of unimaginable cruelty.”

Four centuries is not specific, it could be any four centuries. “Africans were shipped” uses the agentless passive construction. Is the cruelty “unimaginable”?

The final version read:

"In the four hundred years between 1500 and 1900, European enslaved millions of Africans. They shipped them across the Atlantic in conditions of great cruelty.”

This has clear dates and clear actions. I know we still have a non specific 'millions' but there is no easy way around this generalisation. The question of numbers is so fraught with dissension that any number of millions one chooses will be open to serious dispute.

Some wording contains hidden messages or rather certain words and phrases can reinforce attitudes that one does not wish to perpetuate. A case in point is the word 'slaves'. This carries with it all sorts of dehumanising messages. Africans were not slaves to begin with. We have consciously called people African or used their group names in the early sections and avoided phraseology such as 'Where did the slaves come from?' They were people who were enslaved and we have frequently preferred the term 'enslaved Africans'. We have generally reserved the term 'slaves' for the state of slavery in the Americas but have also used 'Blacks' and 'people of African descent'.

And there is the question of generalisation and balance: a problem for all museum displays. Inevitably in telling a story like this in simple clear statements one succumbs. For example, we have portrayed slave masters as cruel, repressive, murderous, exploitative - in a word 'bad'. But what of the 'good' masters? There were such things. Do you include a 'good' example to balance the 'bad' ones? We have not done so. The situation is so unequal that you end up with a balance that is in fact no such thing and the overall message is diluted.

With such complex issues involved it was important that we provided additional ancillary resources for visitors and developed an educational programme, particularly for schools. I have mentioned the gallery guide - priced that most visitors could afford it - and on the academic front I edited a catalogue detailing the objects in the gallery accompanied by 16 essays by our guest curators. We have shied away from souvenirs but produced postcards and stocked a good range of books on issues raised by the gallery. Teachers’ notes were prepared and a variety of teacher training courses held.

The impact of the Transatlantic Slavery gallery

What has been the reaction to the gallery? Initially it was almost overwhelming. Our visitor numbers more than doubled for several weeks and were maintained at above average levels for twelve months. The gallery is still very popular with our visitors and has drawn a sustained interest from around the country and abroad. We commissioned independent formal evaluation in the spring of 1995 which confirmed the generally very positive comments we had received. For instance, the average rating of the gallery was 8.6 out of 10 and the evaluation concluded

“There was no evidence to suggest that visitors felt any aspects of the exhibition to be inappropriate or in poor taste. In our view, it is unusual for any exhibition to evoke such strong, but appropriate emotions.”

As a final word I think it is worth reflecting for a few moments on the impact of doing the gallery on the museum as a whole - not just the Merseyside Maritime Museum but National Museums Liverpool. People began asking questions: What is National Museums Liverpool’s Equal Opportunities Policy? How do the museums reflect Black issues? How many employees are Black or from minorities? What employment prospects are there for Black people?

The answers to some of these questions showed up serious weaknesses. For instance, we only had a handful of Black and minority employees. However, we were able to begin a limited programme of positive training, again with help from the Peter Moores Foundation, which has provided six and twelve month training placements in several different jobs across the institution.

As a result of a specific request at a community meeting, we have produced a career guide which gives information about the types of jobs and the qualifications and experience required. We brought forward racial awareness training for front-of-house staff. Immediately by getting involved with the project the status of Equal Opportunities was increased. We now have an Equal Opportunities Working Group.

Future developments in our venues

One of the earliest concerns was the long-term commitment of National Museums Liverpool to Black and related issues. People did not want us to think that once we had opened the gallery we had done our bit and could sit back and bask in the glory! We had no intention of doing that but I have to say that in the current financial climate for public institutions it is very difficult. For instance, we have worked up proposals for a second phase of our Museum of Liverpool Life entitled 'Homes and Communities' which will include the Black community’s contribution to the city (please note that this venue has now closed and will be replaced by the Museum of Liverpool in 2010). But we are dependant on sponsorship and a lottery bid to go ahead. We have exciting ideas for developing the African collections at Liverpool Museum (now open as the World Cultures gallery at World Museum) but again need very substantial financial support.

But what of the future of the gallery? Any physical changes will be very limited and expanding its size and coverage is impractical in present circumstances. But we are developing the educational role and the outreach work. We have been successful in securing European money to fund a project which builds on the external elements of the gallery - last week we launched a guiding service for a Black history trail around Liverpool provided by four Black guides trained in conjunction with the Tourist Board. A self-guiding trail, video, small travelling exhibition and handling collection will follow later this year.

So we are still looking forward. The gallery is not the definitive statement on transatlantic slavery; it is not even intended to be the definitive museum display on the subject. But it is a beginning and an important one. It is an acknowledgement of the slave trade and transatlantic slavery and the part they played in the history of Liverpool and this country. Black people have rightly sought that acknowledgement for many years. I hope the gallery will continue to encourage debate and discussion and encourage others to take on similar challenges.

Anthony Tibbles, 1996

Further reading

'Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity' by Anthony Tibbles is available to purchase from the online bookshop.


  1. David Richardson 'Liverpool and the English Slave Trade' in Anthony Tibbles 'Transatlantic Slavery', HMSO, London, 1994, p 75
  2. Lord Gifford, Wally Brown and Ruth Bundy 'Loosen The Shackles', Liverpool, 1989
  3. Foreword in Anthony Tibbles 'Transatlantic Slavery', HMSO, London, 1994, p 9
  4. Stephen Small 'The General Legacy of the Atlantic Slave Trade' in Anthony Tibbles 'Transatlantic Slavery', HMSO, London, 1994, p 123
  5. For a fuller discussion of the text of the gallery see Helen Coxall 'Speaking Other Voices' in Eileen Hooper-Greenhill 'Cultural Diversity in Museums and Galleries in Britain', Leicester, 1996
  6. J Cannizzo 'Into the Heart of Africa', Royal Ontario Museum, 1989