Opening of the International Slavery Museum

David Fleming, Harry Belafonte and Loyd Grossman

David Fleming and Loyd Grossman presenting Harry Belafonte, board member of the TransAfrica Forum, with a mini 'freedom wall' from the museum to celebrate him being an Honorary Patron of the International Slavery Museum.
Photograph © Simon Webb.

International Slavery Museum gala dinner, 22 August 2007

Transcript of the speech given by David Fleming, director of National Museums Liverpool, at the gala dinner to celebrate the opening of the International Slavery Museum on 22 August 2007.

The need for the International Slavery Museum

The day will come when it is impossible to imagine a pleasant and articulate Black Liverpool teenager being excluded from his school for resisting racial hostility and physical attacks from his white schoolmates.

But that day has not yet come.

The day will come when it is impossible to imagine an African American woman, here to give a lecture on behalf of the International Slavery Museum and accompanied by her young son on the streets of Liverpool, being called “nigger” by a young white boy.

Sadly, that day has not yet come.

The day will come when it is impossible to imagine that a young man should be murdered by white thugs on the streets of Liverpool simply because he was Black.

Tragically, that day has not yet come, neither in Liverpool, nor in any other British city.

And it is because that day has not yet come that the International Slavery Museum is needed. It is needed, yes, to help illuminate one of the darker, more shameful and neglected areas in our history - an era in which this city played a pivotal role.

As well as this, it is needed because the consequences of that era are all around us in the shape of a rich and vibrant multi-national, multi-racial Atlantic world, but also in inequality of opportunity, racial prejudice, ignorance, intolerance and hatred.

And these evils will not be overcome through denial or through wishful thinking. They have to be tackled head on, and the most potent weapon at our disposal is education; the essence of museums, and the essence of the International Slavery Museum.

It is becoming more and more widely accepted that museums can be powerful engines of social change, through their educational power. Over time, and in partnership with others, local museums can help transform communities. National museums can have an even broader reach.

It is gratifying, Minister, that Government has recognized this power, especially in your commitment to free access to national museums, a commitment which is shared with iron determination by the Trustees and staff of National Museums Liverpool.

I have been involved in the transformation or creation of more than a dozen museums. They all seem insignificant compared with the International Slavery Museum. I believe the International Slavery Museum is the most important new British museum for 100 years.

The development of the museum

When I came to Liverpool in 2001 I admired the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, then 7 years old, and I admired the motivation of the people who created it. I recognized in the gallery its uniqueness, but also its potential.

Shortly afterwards, I proposed to National Museums Liverpool Trustees that we should take the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery, relocate it, expand it, re-envision it and indeed reinvent it as a fully fledged national museum in its own right, with all the benefits that status would bring. Happily the Trustees accepted this proposal with an enthusiasm which they have maintained ever since.

Furthermore, the UK Government agreed with us. I should like to pay tribute to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, both to the Department’s officials, and to Ministers, notably Estelle Morris and David Lammy, for enabling this project to get off the ground thanks to Government financial backing.

Their successor as Minister of Culture, Margaret Hodge, is with us tonight, a clear indication of Government’s ongoing support and commitment to the International Slavery Museum.

Already, those who have had exposure to this project have begun to sense its power, and its potential. I remember briefing our design team two years or so ago, and I said the International Slavery Museum must have a visceral impact. What I meant was that it must have passion. Not the kind of passion that people have for fine paintings or for sporting heroes, but something more profound and elemental.

The museum should provoke in us the kind of zeal and commitment that fired Martin Luther King, that made his speeches so electrifying in the cause of civil and human rights. King once said that “when your belief is strong and your purpose just, no obstacle can stand in your way”. This is a creed we can apply to the International Slavery Museum.

Make no mistake, this is a museum with a mission. We wish to help counter the disease of racism, and at the heart of the museum is a rage which will not be quieted while racists walk the streets of our cities, and while many people in Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, continue to subsist in a state of chronic poverty.

This is not a museum that could be described as a 'neutral space' - it is a place of commitment, controversy, honesty, and campaigning.

This museum will provoke different responses, different emotions, in different people:

  • in those who believe that some races are superior to others, it will provoke doubt
  • in those who believe that all men and women should have equality of opportunity, and rejoice in mutual respect, it will create hope
  • in people of African descent - and perhaps especially in those who are descended from those who were enslaved - it will promote grief, but also pride, pride in the doggedness and strength of spirit of their ancestors, which enabled them to survive the horrors of slavery, and to pass on, down the centuries, that spirit which endures in many of the people in this room tonight.

Our hope and expectation is that our young people will, through studying the evils of transatlantic slavery and of other, contemporary systems of human rights abuse, come to reject racism as an iniquitous, pernicious and bankrupt ideology.

Support for the International Slavery Museum

I keep speaking of the museum, of “us”, of “we”, of “our”. But a project like this, the creation of a new national institution, comes along very rarely, and when it does it needs not just careful and sensitive nurturing, it needs support from a wide variety of people. It needs partners. It needs a family.

Thus far the museum has received a huge amount of such support and encouragement.

Our partners are many, though I am able to mention just a few, including members of our Slavery Remembrance Initiative Steering Group - Michelle Charters, Chief Angus Chukuemeka, Ray Costello, Dorothy Kuya, and Sandra St Rose; and members of our Fundraising Council - Paige Earlam, Norman Kurland, Theresa Roberts.

We are developing relationships with a number of organisations, such as the TransAfrica Forum, the Martin Luther King Jr Center for Non-violent Social Change, and the Anthony Walker Foundation. Just this morning we agreed a memorandum of understanding with the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on behalf of the world’s greatest cultural organisation, the Smithsonian Institution.

Our principal funders and sponsors include the Heritage Lottery Fund, the estate of the late Molly Tomlinson, and the North West Regional Development Agency. Other partners and supporters are acknowledged in the museum itself, and in our literature - thank you to you all.

Thanks also to National Museums Liverpool Trustees, who had the courage to proceed with this project; to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport officials and Ministers, who responded to us so enthusiastically when we put this challenging project to them four years ago.

I want to mention our Honorary Patrons - with us tonight are Baroness Rosalind Howells of St David’s, and Mr Harry Belafonte of the TransAfrica Forum. Our other Honorary Patrons are The Right Honourable Mr John Prescott MP, President John Kufuor of Ghana, and Mr Danny Glover, Chairman of TransAfrica Forum, who is represented with us tonight by Ms Nicole Lee.

I wish to thank National Museums Liverpool staff - for their unflinching commitment which has encouraged me to press on and take the many risks this project involves.

And thank you to our consultants, who were every bit as committed as our staff to this project, and who put in their heart and soul, notably Redman Design and Turner and Townsend.

Looking to the future

And so, where we are at the moment, what we will open to public scrutiny tomorrow, is actually a step, albeit a very significant one, on a long journey. There is much more to do.

If this new national museum is to fulfil its mission, it needs to grow and blossom into one of the world’s leading human rights institutions. It is off the ground but it needs to soar to the heavens.

We have occupied the adjacent historic Dock Traffic Office - and we hope in the near future to be able to secure the money to purchase the building - where we will base the museum’s Research and Education Centre. We have already created the Research Centre, in partnership with our friends at the University of Liverpool. We are building a strong network of partners internationally; I invite everyone in this room to join us as we strive to create a world class institution.

In 1937 the former slave William Prescott wrote:

"They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave."

This understandably bleak observation has had a powerful and motivating impact on those of us charged with creating this museum, and it has become a rallying cry, and a challenge for us to rise to.

We are determined that people will remember the strength and the bravery of the enslaved Africans. We will remember. We will learn. And we will respect.

Through education we will counter the racism that enslaved William Prescott.

Through education we will promote racial harmony.

Through education we will encourage our young people to fight for freedom and equality, not for the few, but for all.

David Fleming, Liverpool, 22 August 2007