Museums and the representation of slavery: politics, memorialisation and cultural tourism

International Congress of Maritime Museums, October 2001

Conference paper given by Anthony Tibbles at the interim meeting of the International Congress of Maritime Museums, Curacao, October 2001 - several years before the opening of the International Slavery Museum in 2007.

Recent developments in Liverpool's museums

In 1996 at the triennial conference in Liverpool, we held a session on the Africa Diaspora. It was appropriate to do so as we had just opened our gallery on transatlantic slavery. At the time it was a groundbreaking initiative but we, and the world, have moved on since then. Maybe not very far, or as far as some would wish. Today, I’d like to sketch in some of the developments that have taken place in the representation of slavery in museums in the last five years and also to discuss some of the current issues that surround slavery.

At that 1996 meeting I spoke about the way in which we had handled those issues in putting the gallery together [1]. I concluded with some words about our future plans and the observation that had frequently been made to us that we could in effect not sit back and think we had done our bit. Over the course of time, this has proved to be true. The subject of slavery and associated themes has been an important part of our programming and has influenced such matters as our temporary exhibition programme. In terms of the gallery itself we have made little change and perhaps I’ll just show a few slides to remind you of its appearance.

We have been able to acquire a few additional items - for instance, a seal and ivory horn associated with the Royal African Company, our own copy of Equiano and a Sunderland blue glass rolling pin with its unusual abolitionist motto. We also in the process of acquiring some important archives relating to the trading activities of William Davenport, a leading slaving merchant in Liverpool in the late 18th century [2].

We have continued to maintain a range of public and educational activities associated with the gallery and have contributed to Black History Month every year. In 1996-7, we undertook a Tourism Development project, partly funded by the European Regional Development Fund which has produced a slavery trail round Liverpool, trained a group of guides to take visitors on the tour, initiated a theatrical production for schools, a small travelling exhibition and a handling collection.

In terms of our temporary exhibition programme, it has led the museum into new areas and we have included subjects which we would not previously have considered. We have held an exhibition on Haiti, its history and art. We developed a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Caribbean migrants on the SS Empire Windrush, based around a specially created Caribbean Garden. In the spring of 2000 we hosted a very successful exhibition on Reggae, ReggaeXplosion!, and held educational sessions, including a one-day workshop on careers in the music industry. This has helped sustain and develop our audience. Our initial concerns that our existing visitors would question the appropriateness of these exhibitions in a `maritime’ museum, have not materialised and they have proved popular with all our visitors.

Our most visible initiative in recent years has been our decision in 1999 to mark UNESCO’s International Day for the remembrance of the slave trade and its abolition. For the past three years, on 23 August, we have held an event, which has been part commemorative, part celebratory. You may be forgiven for being unaware of this day, which was only established in 1998, and, as far as we know, we have been the only place in Britain to mark it and amongst a very few worldwide. I have reason to think we will hear more it, particularly in Britain. On the first occasion we launched a new section on Transatlantic Slavery on our website and persuaded the Black MP, Bernie Grant to unveiling an information panel on our quaysides. The event generated a lot of interest and brought forth a spate of letters to the newspapers about the usual issues of African involvement in the trade, the profits of slavery and the Navy’s role in abolition.

On a wider National Museums Liverpool front, we have continued to develop the new World Cultures galleries at the Liverpool Museum (which became World Museum in 2005) which will feature our important African collections, most of which have been in store for decades. We have also generated an innovative educational project called Celebrating Diversity, with funding of £360,000 from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Working with community groups in the area, we are targeting new audience including non-learners and the socially excluded. Amongst a range of activities, we are using our experience at the Conservation Centre to assist `individuals, cultural and religious groups who are interested in their own histories, traditions and cultures and to establish community collections.’ We are planning a programme of off-site events and 100 multi-cultural events in association with the World Cultures galleries.

Other British museums

But there have been other significant developments elsewhere in Britain in recent years. One of the most important was the opening in 1999 of a temporary exhibition in Bristol under the title `A Respectable Trade: Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery’. With Liverpool and London, Bristol was the other major British port involving in slaving and there had been a demand for Bristol to recognise its role in the trade for some years, particularly after the opening of our gallery. As its title suggests, the focus was narrower than ours, but was equally comprehensive in its coverage. The exhibition brought an enormous response (140,000 visitors in 6 months, double their usual) and the museum had to make hurried plans to relocate the core of the exhibition in the Industrial Museum, pending plans for a yet unfunded Museum of Bristol. But interestingly, the reaction in Bristol to the exhibition has been more controversial than in Liverpool. The exhibition followed the recent screening of a television drama series based on a novel by Philippa Gregory from which the exhibition got its name. There was unease amongst some of the descendants of slave traders and the Society of Merchant Venturers. Certainly Gregory herself, a major supporter of the exhibition, has been subject to considerable attack, which has included not only interpretation of the facts but the facts themselves. I think that part of the reason is that, perhaps surprisingly and unlike Bristol, the families associated with shipping in Liverpool in the 18th century have long moved away from the city and no longer have a presence or even an interest in what goes on!

The other major museum development has been the opening of the Trade and Empire gallery at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, again in 1999. The Atlantic slave trade forms one of the four sections of the gallery which also look specifically at India, the overall impact of Empire and its role in forming Britain’s multi-cultural society. Although the gallery was one of more than a dozen new components of the Neptune Court project, this was the one which attracted attention and also vociferous criticism. There was almost a campaign in some of the national press outraged that the museum should be raising issues which questioned the traditional view of Empire. I find it fascinating that the critics accused the museum of political correctness in linking slavery, trade and empire and then resorted to their own equivalent, - well, look how the Royal Navy fought against slavery. The museum has made changes removing some of the most controversial features but although I think it has lost some of its edge the main intellectual thrust remains. But disgusted of Tunbridge Wells seems assuaged.

It is also encouraging that other museums and centres are incorporating at least some reference to slavery. The new Docklands Museum in London will include the subject, at least in passing, and I was interested to see that the Eden Project, the hugely successful ecological project in Cornwall, makes links between slavery, sugar and cotton.

On a wider front, the celebration of Black History Month – in October, as opposed to February in the States – is now beginning to take off. This is partly because local government authorities are beginning to build it into their programmes and partly through the support of television and the other media, led by Channel 4. Museums, like my own, have played an important part and the National Maritime Museum also has a significant events programme during October.

One of the most frequent demands at community level has been the need to provide support for initiatives originating within the Black community. It is thus refreshing to note that the Heritage Lottery Fund has given a grant of more than £300,000 to the Black Cultural Archives and Middlesex University to establish a National Museum and Archive of Black History and Culture.

Europe and the United States

Elsewhere in Europe, there is little new to report. Although Nantes held a major temporary exhibition in 1992, has hosted 2 international conferences and has two active community organisations dedicated to the memory of slavery and its legacy, the city does not yet have a permanent display on slavery.

Given the impact of the African diaspora on the United States it is initially surprising there is no permanent exhibit on the slave trade per se in North America. Many museums do have displays which touch on slavery within local or regional historical treatments as have a number of natural history museums, which have traditionally cared for ethnographic objects. One major example is the slavery display in the American Museum of Natural History which explores the concept of slavery. However, a comprehensive exploration and interpretation of the trade has not been attempted. The nearest development has been at the Museum of African American History which opened in Detroit in 1997. Here the relationship between Africa and America is examined and one of three orientation areas focuses on the Middle Passage. Visitors walk over a bridge in a 70 foot replica of a slave ship and look down on cast figures representing slaves. This has proved to be controversial because the casts were taken from local schoolchildren whom critics argue are too healthy and well nourished to represent the enslaved. However, it is a worthy attempt to at least engage the visitor emotionally with the centrality of the African diaspora. The most recent development, I have heard about is the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Centre in Iowa, which is due to open in the late 2002. They are looking to include a display on the Atlantic slave trade and, interestingly, are looking to develop a relationship with Cape Coast Castle Museum in Ghana.

There have also been a number of temporary exhibitions in recent years which have addressed some of the aspects of the slave trade and related issues. The most pertinent is the travelling exhibit A Slave Ship Speaks based on the examination of the wreck of the slave ship Henrietta Marie and the artefacts that have been recovered. Although this seventeenth century vessel is not characteristic of all ships employed in the slave trade, it does offer the most complete record of life on board a slaver to date. The Field Museum in Chicago has also held an exhibition which included a partial reconstruction of a slave ship.

Perhaps the most ambitious programmes in the United States, or indeed anywhere, are those run by Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. Within the historic area costumed Black interpreters are now an established part of the life of the town. Programs such as The Other Half tour, give visitors an introduction to the lives of Black Americans in 18th century Williamsburg in the space of about an hour. At Carter’s Grove, the plantation estate some 7 miles south on the James River, visitors tour the slave quarter on the estate before going up to the Big House. Not only does this emphasise the dependency of the estate and its owners on the labours of the enslaved but the interpreters raise some unpalatable facts about the nature of slavery and cause visitors to confront issues of which many are unaware or ignorant. A major development in the spring of 1999, has been the introduction of Enslaving Virginia one of six programs constituting the overriding Becoming Americans theme. This scrupulously researched project builds on the previous work done and explores the nature of slavery and the operation of a slave economy within the Chesapeake through a wide range of interpretation and activities. However, it is noticeable that it only incidentally deals with how Africans came to be in America in the first place.

However, the slave trade and the linkage with Africa, is to be the subject of a major temporary exhibition currently in preparation. Although the exhibition Captive Cargoes will open at the Mariners’ Museum next April, the idea for it originated with our President during the 1996 ICMM conference in Liverpool and was initially discussed as a clone of our gallery. Much of the spadework particularly in terms of artefact research was also done at South Street. I have acted as one of the consultants to the exhibition, and although the concept has changed to speak more directly to an American audience, they have been able to benefit significantly from our research and experience. The exhibition is due to tour, hopefully still to New York at some future time, but also to the Smithsonian, Chicago, Atlanta and other cities in the South.

The reluctance to address issues of slavery in some visitor attractions

Whilst this represents a significant amount of progress over the last decade, this is, unfortunately, not typical of the whole museum and related sector.

"I am heading for the Shirley Plantation in Virginia, which was settled in 1613 and claims to be the oldest in the state. ... I am surrounded by broad ripples of brown fields, waiting for a new season. ... It’s gorgeous.

It’s perverse. Hundred of black slaves lived and died here, the human engine that made this plantation work. It’s possible that one of them was an ancestor of mine, as part of my family is from Virginia. I’m sure I’ll never know. As I wander through the grounds, poking my head into the laundry house and the barns (rare examples of Queen Anne architecture, the brochure reminds me), it occurs to me that the Shirley Plantation could be a memorial to a holocaust in which millions of people were stripped of their freedom, language and culture, forced to work without pay, tortured, humiliated, raped and murdered.

Instead, it is a celebration of the antebellum South. During a guided tour of the house, I learn about the square-rigged flying staircase, the family silver, the unusual hot and cold water taps. Slaves get no mention, a situation that sometimes demands use of the passive tense (as in “The food was brought into this room from the kitchen”). I am waiting for our silver-haired guide to say, in her soft Southern intonations, “Here’s the spot where disobedient slaves were whipped”, or “Here are the leg irons used to transport the newly purchased”. But it seems that, in terms of historical importance, slaves rank behind the furnishings.

I feel uneasy as I walk around. I am the only black person here. The other people on the tour are two white couples from California. I can’t relax. I can’t chat with my fellow tourists. In my head, I am screaming, “What about the slaves?” My mouth is silent. Don’t they know, I think, about slavery? Of course they do. We all do, all Americans. Slavery is hardly a secret. But it is as though we’ve all come to some sort of tacit agreement that we should discuss it as little as possible. White Americans can use this silence to distance themselves from the guilt and responsibility. Black Americans can use it to distance themselves from shame. And we all enjoy the idea that our little arrangement has brought us an awkward but comforting sense of peace." [3]

This is not an unusual experience or a specifically American one. This amnesia is as true of the many English country houses built and furnished on the profits of slavery as it is of the plantation houses of the United States. The huge neo-Norman Penrhyn Castle in North Wales was built on the profits of a Jamaican sugar plantation but there is no explicit link with slavery in the interpretation. Part of the reason is, no doubt, that many privately owned sites still remain with the descendants of those who built and owned them and there may be a reluctance to confront very personal aspects of family history. It is, however, interesting to note that in this area the public sector is significantly ahead of the private sector. Whilst in Britain, the owners of country houses have recognised the public interest in the “below stairs” areas and the wider social fabric that needs to be reflected, they have generally avoided the origins of wealth which allowed for the creation of these impressive piles and their contents. We could go further. We all marvel at the magnificence of Georgian mahogany furniture and the skills of the craftsmen who made it but fail to consider where the wood came from and at what cost.

Some of these issues are now being thought about. I’ve recently been asked to speak to a group from our National Trust about some of these matters. They are responsible for a number of properties which have links with slavery (including Penrhyn Castle). Perhaps I could quote from what effectively was my remit

"The National Trust has traditionally been seen as a fairly white middle class organisation. The 'new' NT is very keen to shed this perception and is interested in "inclusivity" and looking at diversity. It is important to the Trust that they become more attractive to all sectors of society. We are particularly interested in the history of NT properties and their relation to other cultures which were, unfortunately, often very exploitative - eg slavery. The NT wants to bring forward this aspect, both in order to be more honest and open and to help attract a wider audience."

Some of you may well recognise a number of buzzwords and those familiar with the British political scene will know that this is the language of the present government. It provides a useful link for taking a few minutes to look more closely at the political context in which we work.

Slavery is still a current issue

Slavery is not an ordinary subject - its one that goes to the heart of society in three continents and is a major underlying factor in the struggle to build and adapt to the consequences of a multi-cultural reality in many of the societies in which we live and work. Slavery, and its adjunct racism, are still potent, controversial and raw.

The most recent political manifestation of the importance of the issue of slavery has been the World Conference on Anti-racism held in South Africa at the beginning of September. Along with the arguments over Jewish participation and the Palestinian Question, it was European slavery of Africans that dominated the agenda. As a museum which deals with slavery, this was not a matter we could entirely avoid - put in the box “politics - ignore”!

Even before the conference started journalists had made connections. It was particularly true of the Japanese who immediately saw the connection between the demand for reparations for slavery and similar demands associated with the treatment of prisoners during WWII. I gave two interviews, one for NKK the Japanese network and another to the London correspondent of a Tokyo newspaper. In both cases they began with the general history of the slave trade but soon turned to questions of responsibility and reparations. Our standard response is that reparations are a valid subject which we are happy to raise but on which the museum has no standpoint. But I wonder, should we now be going further stimulating debate on the subject, providing a forum for examining the issue?

It’s relatively easy to deflect journalists’ questions on such matters but the political consequences of dealing with slavery are always so easily avoided. The British Government is currently considering how it might recognise and deal with the consequences of Britain’s involvement in slavery. In his first term of office, the Primer Minister, Tony Blair, effectively apologised for British involvement in the Irish famine and the establishment of a Holocaust Day last year, has increased the pressure for some form of official recognition. The Home Office has deputed a sub-group of its Anti-racism Forum to look at the issues and make a recommendation. Members of the sub-group recently joined us at our ISD event. I met the group with National Museums Liverpool’s head of education the following morning. After we had made our presentations, the first questions were about wider issues - unassociated with their remit - how many Black employees did National Museums Liverpool have, what percentage did they form, how did we recruit staff, what steps were we taking to change the situation - it was like going back 10 years to the consultation over the gallery! But it was also indicative of how little has changed on the political agenda.

Reparations and resources for Africa

So we are there in the political fray and it’s unavoidable - not least because of that other hot potato, the repatriation of cultural property. There are many facets to this, ranging from the Elgin Marbles to Native American artefacts, but one of the loudest, and most difficult, is the demand for the repatriation of African treasures. This is a wider question that can be covered here, but one of the arguments deployed by current holders of African artefacts is the lack of resources and facilities in Africa. It is a real and difficult problem, which will only be solved if the richer nations actually provide help.

In terms of the slave trade, there has been some attempt to redress this balance through the UNESCO Slave Route project. This seeks to direct attention and resources to Africa and the Caribbean. One of the aims is raise awareness about the slave trade and slavery in Africa itself, and in the Caribbean, and to undertake educational programmes. Launched in 1993, the Slave Route Project, like many ambitious and large-scale projects, has struggled to achieve its aims. It has failed to convince any of the former slave trading nations to support it financially. Ironically, the only significant contribution has come from the Norwegian Development Agency - one of the countries least involved in the slave trade! National Museums Liverpool has been involved fitfully with the project; Richard Foster was on the International Scientific Committee and chaired its embryonic museums sub-group. As a result, in 1999, we did a lot of work to set up a museums facility and evaluation survey in various African countries - which eventually foundered.

The practical achievements of the project as a whole may have been limited so far but this should not discourage us. Often one-to-one arrangements work better. The Smithsonian has been working with the museum authorities in Ghana for more than a decade now, both at the National Museum and Cape Coast Castle, with some success.

I have been personally involved with another project - in Senegal, as the so-called Slave House on the island of Gorée, a few miles off the capital, Dakar. The House was restored in the late 1980s with help from UNESCO but the authorities recognised it had more potential. I was invited by the Minister of Culture to advise on the possibilities, through the good offices of the British Council, and visited Gorée in October 1998. As a result of my report, the British Council was able to put together a financial package with the aid of Shell, to produce 16 graphic panels on the history of the slave trade for display in one of the rooms. The Senegalese authorities wrote the text, I acted as adviser and editor and chose the illustrations and my colleagues in our design department designed and arranged production of the panels. They’ve also produced an accompanying guide using the same artwork.

The role of museums

So what is the role of museums in dealing with issues like slavery - are we just following an agenda of political correctness? I would argue not, though the subject is not without its political dimension, as I hope I have demonstrated. There are other considerations and I have mentioned a couple of them in the title, which I will develop in a short while. Our key role is to interpret and I would argue educate, in its widest sense. For this we need accurate information and good research. One of the important roles which we can adopt is to act as a bridge between academia and the general public. Slavery and related studies are a veritable industry in the academic world - there must be hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers producing articles and books, writing papers and attending seminars and conferences. The annual bibliographical supplement of Slavery and Abolition (the Journal of Slave and Post-slave Studies) for 1999 fills over 100 pages! The problem is that they are mostly talking to one another and the fruits of their work rarely percolate through to a wider audience. Museums can be a conduit and a successful one at that.

By the nature of academic research, much of what is done is at the coalface - very detailed studies of very specific and often localised subjects. But there have been some developments of wider import. One of them is the CD-Rom of 27,000 slave voyages, which was issued nearly 2 years ago [4]. This is not only a magnificent reference list but is proving to be a fundamental research tool - allowing the analysis of complicated patterns of trading and provide some wide-ranging conclusions. The Academic Research Board in Britain has recently given David Richardson of Hull University (who did much of the initial work for the CD-Rom) a grant of £300,000 to work on the Portuguese archives. This will eventually add a large number of voyages and incidentally redress the balance in terms of the importance of the Portuguese (and Brazilian) involvement in the trade. But sometimes the detailed journal article can be of wider significance - Robin Law’s article on ‘The Evolution of the Brazilian Community in Ouidah’ [5] - documenting the role of Brazilian-based merchants in the trade from as early as 1644 - is an indicator of the importance of the bilateral trade as opposed to the triangular trade with which we are all so familiar. As museum professionals, we can’t hope to keep up with this wealth of information but, with assistance, we can cherry-pick. It is thus important to establish and maintain contacts and we are now well plumbed in to the circuit. The same is true of my colleagues at Greenwich, where they have held a number of conferences, seminars and lecture series around the topic of empire. There is also a measure of re-assurance to be had - the museum stimulating debate, airing and defusing entrenched opinions. So it, too, can have its political dimension.


I’ve already referred to our involvement in International Slavery Day and the British Government’s working group on the remembrance of slavery. There is a very clear desire to provide memorials to the slave trade and transatlantic slavery across the three continents. At its most ambitious there is a proposal to erect a huge, multi-million dollar memorial and visitor attraction in Dakar in Senegal, on the corniche, the cliffs overlooking Gorée. Or there are the plans of the Washington based Middle Passage Foundation to build 100 ft memorials in six locations around the Atlantic. They have already placed a memorial on the ocean floor off the North American coast.

But how far do and should museums memorialise the slave trade and slavery? What are people’s expectations of us in this regard? Our objective in Liverpool was clearly educational -in the words of our mission statement `to increase understanding’ - but some have sought to place the demands of memory upon us. In his book on the visual representations of slavery Blind Memory, Marcus Wood writes in his concluding chapter `this gallery should occupy a central space in our cultural memory.’ He takes us to task for not doing so.

"The mock-ups of the conditions in a slave ship displayed in Hull and Liverpool attempt to concretise, to simulate, the memory of the middle passage. ... Yet surely there are subjects and objects which cannot fit within an educational framework of current museum culture. Museum parodies of the experience of the middle passage, which claim to `put us there’, may well do more harm than good. ... In inviting us to think we are getting a `total experience’, these exhibits simply recast the empathetic yet complacent emotional substitutions with which the West has been mis-remembering and dis-remembering slavery for more than three centuries." [6]

Not all cultural historians and commentators agree. In a forthcoming study on the Black Atlantic Memory, Alan Rice, argues that

“their primary [museums] need to narrate a history and to purvey information vitiates against such a function. Museums play a large part in fighting amnesia but this does not mean they are prime sites for memorialisation.” [7]

He sees places of memory as a proposed garden memorial in Liverpool, the new bridge in Bristol named after Pero, an African servant of the city’s Pinney family, or the grave of Sambo, an African boy, on a lonely promontory near Lancaster.

Of course, the two views are not completely mutually exclusive. Whilst it may not be appropriate to categorise a complete museum or gallery as a memorial in itself, a memorial element could be incorporated. The Scottish Fisheries Museum has a small community room and a key feature is a number of memorial plaques on the walls remembering those fishermen who perished at sea.

We should also recognise that, as things stand at the moment, there is really nowhere else to go if one wants to remember the slave trade and slavery other than museums and the places where slaves lived and worked.

Toni Morrison sums this up:

"There is no place you or I can go, to think about, or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby."

By default we have some element of memorialisation thrust upon us and that is likely to remain the situation until other forms emerge. We thus need to be sensitive to visitors’ needs in this respect and recognise this as another element in a complex and complicated scenario.

Cultural tourism

But there are also tensions and competition between the different aspects that we have to address. And this is certainly true of the relationship between memorialisation and the other aspect that I mentioned in the title of my paper - tourism. We are all aware that museums are an important part of the tourist industry and also that we have to go out and market and promote ourselves and our `product’ Again when dealing with a subject like slavery there are potential pitfalls. One of the first questions we were asked when we embarked on our project was 'What is the museum going to get out of it?’ There is no doubt that Merseyside Maritime Museum has benefited enormously from the Transatlantic Slavery gallery. From the beginning it has generated a huge amount of public interest and continues to do so. It is the most popular gallery within the museum and first destination of over 30% of all our visitors, despite its location in the basement. It has helped cement our international reputation and been a significant draw both for a local and a wider audience. It is a crucial part of our `product’ and has helped sustain our visitor base. In that sense, it has certainly had an impact on our finances - through admission fees to the museum and the sale of ancillary services.

The programme of additional activities that we undertook in 1997-8 with European Regional Development funding (the city trail, handling collection and exhibition) was called the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery Tourism and Community Development Project and qualified under one of the tourism drivers. The slavery trail round Liverpool, despite our close involvement, is managed promoted through the local Tourist Board.

And there has been a spin off for the city. Although I can’t quantify it, individuals and groups do come to Liverpool specifically because of the gallery. They stay in the city’s hotels, spend money in the locality and thus contribute to the local economy. It’s certainly been a good way of attracting academics and academic conferences. Slave trade and slavery related subjects are a major academic industry and one only has to think of the 900 plus people who attended the 1998 Williamsburg conference for the Slave Trade Database CD-Rom (despite the fact that it was not in fact available!).

The tourism and thus economic possibilities of the interpretation and history of slavery are recognised beyond Europe and North America. One of the reasons for restoring and developing the interpretation of the Slave House on Goree, with which I’ve been involved, was to increase and encouraged tourism to the area. However, the most obvious example of developing tourism around the sites related to slavery is in Ghana where many of the slave forts along the coast have been restored and promoted, particularly at the African-American market. 25 of the extant forts and castles have been designated as national monuments and the most important have World Heritage Site status. This process has not been without its problems. There was significant opposition to the authorities from the African-American community in Ghana who saw the restoration as a process of whitewashing history. They also objected to the use of the ramparts above the dungeons for concerts, plays and public events. They saw the castles as memorials to the slave trade whereas the authorities wanted to reflect the complex histories of the site. To compound matters, at Elmina Castle, the area immediately around the castle was signed “This area is restricted to all personnel except tourists” and the local population was expected to pay the same fee to enter.

The opportunity for developing cultural tourism was also one of the objectives of the UNESCO Slave Route project and this has been an aspect which has been picked up here in the Caribbean. The Cultural Tourism Programme was launched in Accra, Ghana in 1995 with the primary goal:

To foster economic and human development and to rehabilitate, restore and promote the tangible and intangible heritage handed down by the slave trade for the purposes of cultural tourism, thereby throwing into relief the common nature of the slave in terms of Africa, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean.

The Caribbean component has been developed over the past couple of years and two workshops have been held in St Croix in 1999 and in Barbados in 2000. The results have been a declaration of basic principles and a framework for action and mostly recently the establishment of a working group to follow up the recommendations of the Barbados meeting and to collaborate with MAC to complete the assessment of sites associated with the history of slavery. This is an on-going project and all the participants recognise that its progress will depend on gaining sustained commitment from governments and their agencies and in identifying sources of funding.

It is, therefore, possible to see the representation and interpretation of the slave trade and slavery, whether in museums, historic sites or other places of memory, as a component of development and regeneration. And if anyone was in any doubt of the connections, the first academic study - a series of essays on Slavery and Tourism - is being published this month. There is, of course, a balance to be struck - the ever-present danger of the charge of exploitation can be raised (and no doubt will be in one of those essays) - but with sensitivity, consultation and debate these issues can be worked through successfully and it is possible to 'promote’ a subject like slavery.

Anthony Tibbles, October 2001

Further reading

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


  1. Anthony Tibbles 'AGAINST HUMAN DIGNITY: The development of the Transatlantic Slavery Gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool' in Proceedings, IXth International Congress of Maritime Museums, edited Adrian Jarvis, Roger Knight and Michael Stammers, 1996
  2. The Davenport Papers, Maritime Archives and Library, Merseyside Maritime Museum, D/DAV
  3. Tara Mack, 'Payback Time', Guardian Weekend, 11 August 2001
  4. Eltis, David, Behrendt, Stephen D, Richardson, David, & Klein, Herbert S (editors) The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-Rom, Cambridge, 1999
  5. Slavery and Abolition, volume 22, number 1, April 2001, pp 22-41
  6. Marcus Wood Blind Memory: Visual Representations of slavery in England and America, 1780-1865, 2000, p300
  7. Alan Rice Radical Narratives of the Black Atlantic, 2003, p203