The merely as victims, with little roleThe merely as victims, with little role

The International Slavery Museum was one of the very few
museums to ‘look at aspects of historical and contemporary slavery’ 1and
focusing on this specific factor. When considering the importance of the
museums it is important to understand that the museum presents some fundamental
key issues. This focuses primarily 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 international importance of slavery, both in a historic and
contemporary context.’2
It focused on providing the audience with a first-hand experience of life for the ‘enslaved’ and the tough experiences
they had faced. The galleries of 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 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 surrounding to shed a light
particularly on the experiences of the enslaved especially on their voyage
experience. 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 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 suggested the
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 the experience 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 in his autobiography ‘This wretched situation
was again aggravated by the galling of the chains, now become insupportable…’ 6his
account allows the audience to gain an insight into the first-hand experience
of a former slave who had experienced the hardship that had come with the trade
ships. This was a period whereby many of
the enslaved faced hardship and this had been shown within the museum also it
was said that ‘70% of all Africans transported to the Americas’7
proving that the transatlantic slave trade was a growing factor during this
period.   (re-word) 

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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 going 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 chains8’
(see in Appendix 2). The judgment which can be formed from this figure is that this
is a ‘symbolic gesture’. The ‘shackles’ were presented throughout the museum
this could instigate that the enslaved were not 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’9
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 culture and 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.’10
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 their
was ‘strong trade bonds between Europeans and Africans’ 11(Emmer
2014;2009). This was ironic as not long after the Europeans began kidnapping
the Africans and their culture as well as identity was said to have been left
behind. Many of the Europeans saw the Africans as uncivilised’, however the
Igbo domestic architecture actually 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 an atmosphere of darkness
and this helped with experiencing 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’
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…’13
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 being removed from them. The image of the Africans working on
plantations (see in appendix 4) allows the audience of the museum to understand
that they were under 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’14
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. The use of both
colour and sound allows the